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For Oklahoma Supersleuth Jim Tice, the Search Isn't Over Until the Fat Lady Springs

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Let’s say you’re looking for a naked fat lady to bounce on a trampoline. Or a gas-powered pogo stick. Or a couple of fleas dressed up as bride and groom. You’ve checked but, amazingly, they don’t have any of this stuff down at Sears. Where to turn? Perhaps Finders Keepers, Global Search Service in Edmond, Okla. They specialize in delivering the rare, the exotic and the downright weird.

They’ll also take on more conventional cases, like tracking down an elusive perfume. That’s exactly what they did for Dolly Parton, who ran out of her favorite in 1981 and had only a lingering scent in a long empty bottle to guide her in her search. “There was no label on the bottle,” recalls Jim Tice, 49, Finders Keepers’ founder and president. “But there was a serial number. We tracked the number through bottle makers in four countries and learned it had been sold to a New York City perfume company 17 years earlier.” That company was long gone, “but we tracked down one of the firm’s incorporating officers. He led us to the lab chemist who first created the perfume. We set him up in a rented laboratory and he re-created the scent.” Tice’s fee for that job: $867.10.

Parton isn’t his only showbiz client. Indeed, word of mouth has made him something of a legend. The phone rings in Tice’s office, decorated with antiques and mementos of past searches. It’s Marty Erlichman, Barbra Streisand’s manager. He’s looking for Amarillo Slim, the famous poker player-raconteur. “Can you find him?” asks Erlichman. “Yeah,” says Tice. “We don’t do missing-person hunts but this we can do.” Tice, a Streisand fan, dives into his computerized cross-indexed files of “experts, professionals, collectors and connoisseurs.” He checks his free-lance finders network of 400 people in 23 different countries. He makes a few phone calls and within three days, he’s back to Erlichman with Amarillo Slim’s home address and unlisted phone number. Fee: $193.

Tice got into the search business 15 years ago. He’d been a successful Oklahoma City adman who, along the way, “acquired a reputation as something of a whiz at finding unusual props for commercials and ads.” One Christmas night, while he and his wife, Lynda, were taking stock of their lives, Tice thought, “Hey, I wonder if there’s a company anywhere in the world that finds things for people—and what a fantastic life that would be. Before I went to bed that night I settled on the name: Finders Keepers.”

For searches he does himself, Tice charges prospective clients an $85 nonrefundable retainer. Then a deposit of up to $100. “When we find something,” he says, “you owe us 15 percent of the purchase price—if you decide to buy it.” For less complex searches, clients can buy a listing in Finders Keepers’ quarterly magazine, Finders Seekers, for $12. “We don’t do this to get rich,” says Tice, who lives simply in a three-bedroom ranch house in Stillwater. “We do it for the challenge and the fun.”

Some of the more amusing gauntlets that have been thrown down before Tice and his three employees:

•The naked fat lady (350 lbs.’ worth) willing to bounce on a trampoline. “Not as kinky as it sounds,” says Tice. “An industrial film studio wanted her to illustrate a scientific motion study. I checked a few talent agencies and came up with the names of three candidates within 24 hours.”

•Two fleas in wedding dress. A rich, flea-fancying Jersey man said, “You just find ’em; I’ll pay the bill.” The search took Tice from flea circuses and carnivals to a village in Mexico, where he found a local artisan who specialized in constructing verminous tableaux vivants.

•The gasoline-powered pogo stick. Tice found the manufacturer in Wichita, Kans. “That was the good news,” he says. “The bad news was that they’d made the last one 10 years before.” The inventive Tice finagled his way onto a Wichita TV talk show. Within minutes of his pleading his case, a woman phoned in to say she had that obscure object of desire in its original carton sitting in the garage.

While running to ground such invaluable artifacts as genuine Howdy Doody earmuffs, 1897 railroad cabooses, a life-size fiberglass statue of a polar bear on wheels and the words and music to that rousing folk song Methodist Pie, Sugar in the Gourd, Tice has seen some pretty odd things. “I remember one guy collected woodpecker holes,” he says. “Sawed ’em right out of trees. Then there was the guy who collected elephant plops. He used to shellac ’em and give ’em to friends as joke gifts.” Thanks, pal.

Not all of Tice’s quests are successful. Some, in fact, take on aspects of the search for the Holy Grail. Tice has been hunting for nine years for the cigarette lighter used by Humphrey Bogart in The Maltese Falcon. “We’re not sure it still exists,” he says. “But we’ll keep looking. There’s nothing we can’t find eventually—if it’s out there.”