Old Insurance Maps Lead to Treasure

March 7, 2008

There was a big hole dug in back of Prestige Auto Body in Kingman, Ariz., las week. At the bottom, amid assorted dirt and detritus, stood a man named Scott Given: antique dealer, old bottle enthusiast and professional treasure hunter.

For the past 20 years, Given has driven across the Southwest from his Lordsburg, N.M. home, using a pile of old insurance company maps to search for the sites of long-since demolished houses, many of which still contain thousands of dollars worth of old bottles, plates, guns and other trinkets from the turn of the last century.

At 41, Given has had a lot of time to familiarize himself with old bottles, and can identify many of them at a mere glance. From the latest hole he dug behind Prestige Auto Body, Given identified one small bottle with bumps all over the surface as having contained some undrinkable substance, probably lamp oil.

“That’s about from 1908,” he said, placing it alongside an ink bottle he recognized from 1912. He took another old poison bottle from the packed trunk of his red Camaro, and gestured to the skull-and-crossbones emblazoned on its weathered glass surface. The haul was the fourth Given had dug out of Kingman’s soil in the past several days.

“I came to Arizona in general to dig about a dozen different towns for three weeks,” Given said.

A lifelong collector, Given said he discovered his love of old bottles while searching for arrowheads along Lake Henshaw in California about 20 years ago.

“Every once in a while I’d see an old Coke bottle from the ’40s or ’50s (along the shore), so I’d take them home, wash them up and put them in my windowsill,” he said.

Given returned to the lake two weeks later with a five-gallon bucket, walking along the lakeshore picking up every old bottle he found. He had so many by the day’s end that he was forced to choose which 24 he could fit in the bucket to take home.

“As I got more into bottle collecting, I found out about bottle collecting clubs,” he said. “I didn’t know anybody else collected bottles besides me.”

Living in his hometown of San Diego at the time, Given was introduced to the San Diego Antique Bottle Club.

He joined up, and shortly after began hearing club members discussing the best places to find buried antique treasure — outhouses.

Since then, Given has amassed a collection of more than 22,000 liquor, soda and medicine bottles, among many others.

His personal mission, he said, is to collect at least one locally made bottle of each type from every year between 1880 and 1920.

“I keep one of each kind of Arizona and New Mexico and Southern California bottle that I find,” he said. “Then I take the duplicates I find and sell them in my shop.”

Given’s unnamed store, which he affectionately calls “the packrat’s paradise,” is his primary source of income.

It’s a tribute to his ability to sort the trash from the treasure, given that in his case they’re often one and the same.

Given said Kingman will probably be the last stop on his 22-day trip through Arizona, but before he left, he had one more thing to do before heading back to New Mexico.

“I’m going to probe around the lot for a little while, see if I can find another hole,” he said.

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