The Atlanta Journal-Constitution
Published on: 09/16/07
A tall gray man who seems hurried strides into Butch Holcombe's small antiques shop, looks around and quickly points to what looks like a very old brass bugle.
"How old is that?" the man asks. "I've got one from the Crimean War that looks just like it."
The price is $45, too cheap, in all probability, to be a real antique.
"To be honest, I don't know," Holcombe replies. "Some say it's 19th century, but I think it's more likely World War I, or it could be just a plain old fake."
The aging boomer lifts it to his lips and starts tooting, or trying to. He manages to squeeze out a few wheezy bugle calls, such as reveille and taps. And he's hooked.
"I'll give you $30," the tooter says.
Holcombe, 52, quickly consults with his wife, Anita, 53.
"It could be worth 10 times that much, but since I don't know, well, OK," he says earnestly. "I can't guarantee its age."
The gray-haired customer decides to take the gamble, and the Holcombe's do, too.
"You never know, sometimes," Butch Holcombe says. "It might not even be worth $30, but I paid more than that for it and I've had it a while. So, it's just time to move it."
That's the way it goes in the antiques business, which the Holcombe's went into a few years ago when he decided to quit his job as an machinist and she got laid off from an administrative position.
"We decided to turn our passion and hobby as artifact hunters into a way to make a living," Anita says.
But it's not their little Greybird Relics shop in the Big Shanty Antique Market in Kennesaw that pays their bills, or the Victorian jewelry, 19th century dominoes, ancient coins or Civil War bullets they sell on their Web site. It's the slick-covered, bimonthly American Digger magazine they started "on a wing and a prayer" in January 2005.
"Butch was tired of 10-hour days, I lost my job, so we just figured to give it a try," she says. The magazine has struck a chord, with 1,600 subscribers worldwide.
The magazine, bigger and thicker than the average Newsweek, is filled with pictures of historic artifacts, such as patent medicine "miracle cure" bottles, 15th century coins from eastern Europe, Victorian jewelry and relics dating from the War of 1812 to the Civil War.
It's also full of advertisements from companies that sell metal detectors and books for history buffs.
"We're not getting rich, but we're doing well," says Butch. "We've tapped into something out there."
The magazine's most popular feature is called "Just Dug," several pages of pictures of relics unearthed around the world, including stuff dug up around Marietta. Much of it, such as a folding mirror found by Ed Travis of Cobb County, dates from the Civil War era. Many relics are dug up by members of the North Georgia Relic Hunters Association or the Georgia Research & Recovery Club. Travis' mirror was displayed in a recent edition of American Digger.
Janet Levy, an anthropology professor at the University of North Carolina-Charlotte, says artifact hunting as a hobby goes back at least to the days of a Babylonian king 2,500 years ago.
But the hobby is exploding now in popularity in part because technology has made it easier for buried metallic objects to be found, says Randall Miller, a history professor at Saint Joseph's University in Philadelphia and an expert on popular culture.
"People are digging and hunting for relics not just on battlefields, but in old cisterns and privies, which can be gold mines for very old bottles," he says.
Miller and other academics say the magazine is tapping into the same phenomenon that has made "Antiques Roadshow" such a hit on television.
The Holcombe's, avid relic hunters for years, decided on a trip to Virginia in 2004 to try to find a way to turn "the hobby we love into a magazine to cater to people like us." Says Anita, "We didn't know we couldn't do it."
Butch learned to use graphic design software to lay out the pages, and they take the finished product to Star Printing in Acworth. They sent out magazines to relic clubs, Anita began calling metal detector companies, and they went to press for the first time about three years ago.
"It's even surprised us," Butch says. "We have subscribers in 48 states."
They send copies to U.S. warships and artifact clubs and organizations like the Federation of Metal Detector and Archaeological Clubs, the Authentic Artifact Collectors Association and the Smithsonian Institution.
"We got a Web site up right away for the magazine so other groups could link to it," Anita says. "Payment for articles includes three comp copies and a free ad if the author desires. Artifact hunters like to show off their finds."
Miller says most people interested in hunting for artifacts are in their 50s and 60s.
In New Mexico and Arizona, people look for pottery and Native American artifacts. Some folks walk beaches with metal detectors, looking for lost jewelry, and in the West, people hunt for gold and items from cowboy days, says Jerry Smith of Boom Town & Relic Hunters in Washington.
"We have unearthed rare saloon tokens, gold nuggets and solid gold one dollar pieces worth thousands of dollars," he says.
"There are magazines out there for all sorts of things," Butch Holcombe says. "Ours concentrates on things that are newly dug up. The real interest is in seeing what's just been found because it says a lot about what's still out there. And there's an awful lot.