SANTA FE, N.M. – For more than a decade, he packed and repacked his treasure chest, sprinkling in gold dust and adding hundreds of rare gold coins and gold nuggets. Pre-Columbian animal figures went in, along with prehistoric “mirrors” of hammered gold, ancient Chinese faces carved from jade and antique jewelry with rubies and emeralds.
Forrest Fenn was creating a bounty, and the art and antiquities dealer says his goal was to make sure it was “valuable enough to entice searchers and desirable enough visibly to strike awe.”
Occasionally, he would test that premise, pulling out the chest and asking his friends to open the lid.
“Mostly, when they took the first look,” he says, “they started laughing,” hardly able to grasp his amazing plan.
Was Fenn really going to give this glistening treasure trove away?
Three years ago, he lay two of his most beloved pieces of jewelry in the chest: a turquoise bracelet and a Tairona and Sinu Indian necklace adorned with exotic jewels. At the bottom of the chest, in an olive jar, he placed a detailed autobiography, printed so small a reader will need a magnifying glass. After that, he says, he carted the chest of loot, now weighing more than 40 pounds, into the mountains somewhere north of Santa Fe and left it there.
Next, Fenn self-published a memoir, “The Thrill of the Chase,” distilling the autobiography and, intriguingly, including a poem that he says offers clues to lead some clever – or lucky – treasure hunter to the bounty.
It wasn’t long before word of the hidden trove got out, and the publicity has caused a mini-gold rush in northern New Mexico.
But it has also set off a debate: Has Fenn truly hidden the treasure chest or was this, for the idiosyncratic, publicity-loving 82-year-old who loves to tell tales, just another way to have fun, a great caper to bolster his legacy?
One friend, Michael McGarrity, an author and former Santa Fe County sheriff’s deputy, acknowledges it could be “a private joke,” though he believes “Forrest has certainly buried something.” If it was the treasure he saw, well, “it really is quite an astonishing sight to see.”
There certainly seems to be no shortage of believers, including Doug Preston, whose novel “The Codex” about a notorious treasure hunter and tomb robber who buries himself and his treasure as a final challenge to his three sons, is loosely based on Fenn’s story.
“I’ve seen the treasure. I’ve handled it. He has had it for almost as long as I’ve known him. It’s real. And I can tell you that it is no longer in his vault,” says Preston.
“I am 100 percent sure that he really did go out and hide this thing. I am actually surprised that anyone who knows him would think he was blowing hot air. It is just not his personality. He is not a tricky, conspiratorial, slick or dishonest person at all.”
Fenn says his main goal is to get people, particularly children, away from their texting devices and looking for adventure outdoors.
But probably few are having more fun with the whole adventure than Fenn himself, a self-described schmoozer and endless flirt who is reveling in what he says are 13,000 emails from treasure hunters — not to mention 18 marriage proposals.
“His net worth is much higher than what he put in the bounty,” says Preston, guessing the treasure’s value is in the million-dollar range. “He is having way more than $1 million worth of fun with this.”
It all began, Fenn says, more than 20 years ago, when he was diagnosed with cancer and given just a few years to live.
That’s when he decided to buy the treasure chest and fill it with some of his favorite things.
“Nobody knows where it was going to be but me,” he recalls thinking. He revised the clue-poem’s wording several times over the years, and made other changes in his plans. For a time, he thought of having his bones with the treasure chest, though how that might have been accomplished is unclear.
“But then,” Fenn says with a mischievous twinkle in his blue eyes, “I ruined the story by getting well.”
In “The Thrill of the Chase,” he lays out his unusual rags-to-riches story while sharing memories of his favorite adventures and mischief-making.
From the outset, the book tells readers the recollections “are as true to history as one man can average out that truth, considering the fact that one of my natural instincts is to embellish.”
Average out the truth? Instinct to embellish? Well, one thing is certain: He certainly knows how to tell a tale.
Fenn was raised in Temple, Texas, where his father was a school principal, according to the book. The family was poor, he says, only eating meat on Sundays if there was a chicken to kill. But, Fenn writes, they spent every summer in Yellowstone National Park, where young Forrest and his brother Skippy launched many an adventure. He describes the brothers trying to fly a homemade plane and tells about being left on the side of the road after an argument during a road trip.
Fenn never went to college, although he did attend classes at Texas A&M University with his friends for a short time, before it was discovered he was not a registered student, the book says.
He married his high school sweetheart, Peggy Jean Proctor, and spent nearly two decades in the Air Force, including much-decorated service as a fighter pilot in Vietnam.
After returning to Texas, he, his wife and two daughters moved to Santa Fe, where, over time, he became one of this artistic enclave’s best known and most successful gallery owners.
Details on how a man with no art background made such a dramatic but successful transition are scarce in his book. When asked to elaborate, he says simply, “I never went to college. I never went to business school. I never learned the rules that make businesses fail.”
Those who know him credit his love of people. As an art dealer, he hosted a virtual who’s who of the rich and famous at his gallery and guest house, including Jackie Kennedy Onassis, Sam Shephard, Jessica Lange and Michael Douglas, to name a few. Even at 82, he still throws one hell of a party, friends say, mixing up the guest list with the many actors, artists, writers and political leaders who live in or frequent this artistic mountain hideaway.
Perhaps the biggest misconception about Fenn — whom some locals refer to as Santa Fe’s Indiana Jones — is that he was a treasure hunter himself.
“Forrest is a trader,” said Dan Nietzel, a professional treasure hunter who has searched for Fenn’s treasure. “He traded for these things. I think people think he went around digging all these things up.”
But there are some intangibles Fenn has spent his life searching out.
“I love mysteries. I love adventures,” he says.
As a teen, scouring Yellowstone every summer, he almost led friend Donnie Joe to an early demise when they got lost on horseback in Montana’s Gallatin National Forest trying to retrace the steps of Lewis and Clark, according to his memoir.
“Donnie got in a serious swivet and wouldn’t speak to me for a while, except to say that our unfortunate adventure was ill-conceived, dumb thought out, and I was over-rated like my horse,” he writes.
His book moves on to the Vietnam War, describing his Air Force service, his combat missions and even his survival after being shot down.
While it’s sometimes hard to know whether Fenn’s zest for “embellishment” adds to his stories, military records emphatically back this chapter. They confirm that as a fighter pilot he was awarded the Distinguished Flying Cross, the Air Medal, silver and bronze stars, a purple heart and other medals. In one engagement, enemy fire shattered the canopy of his jet, cutting his face, and yet he continued to attack, the records show. In another, he showed “outstanding heroism,” making repeated low strafing passes to draw fire until wounded forces on the ground could be rescued. He rose to the rank of major.
Fenn also describes himself as an amateur archaeologist. In the mid-1980s, he bought a ranch near Santa Fe that includes the 57-acre ancient pueblo of San Lazaro, where he has spent years digging up bones, pottery and other artifacts that he keeps in a room off his garage.
And while he says he made his fortune selling paintings, his love is clearly of antiquities. His personal study, which was designed to house a 17-by-28-foot Persian rug from the late 1800s, is filled from floor to ceiling with valuables, ranging from gilded fore-edge books to war memorabilia, a brandy bottle left in his guest house by Kennedy Onassis, and even what he says is Sitting Bull’s pipe.
The Federal Bureau of Investigation in 2006 raided his home as part of an antiquities theft probe, but Fenn was never charged.
“Begin it where warm waters halt
And take it in the canyon down,
Not far, but too far to walk.
Put in below the home of Brown.”
That’s part of the poem of clues to the treasure’s location, which Fenn published in his memoir three years ago. News reports have created a run on the book.
Based on the more than 9,000 emails Fenn says he has received just in the past few months, he estimates thousands of treasure hunters will descend on northern New Mexico this spring.
Dana Ortega, director of sales and marketing at Santa Fe’s Inn and Spa at Loretto, said the hotel, which offers a special package starting at $300 that includes a copy of Fenn’s now hard-to-find book, has seen a huge spike in interest.
“About 50 people came in on the package last year,” she said. “Now our phones are ringing off the hook. ... So many people have the book so they are not all doing the package, but they call and want to stay here.”
The local Chamber of Commerce should “give Forrest an award for increasing tourism,” says McGarrity, his friend.
He talks of being stopped on the street by a man in a big truck with Texas plates, pulling an all-terrain vehicle and asking if he knew where Forrest Fenn lived.
“Are you hunting for treasure?” McGarrity asked.
“You betcha!” the Texan said.
But the publicity has also raised safety concerns.
A few weeks ago, a woman from Texas, drawn by a network report about the treasure, got lost searching the mountains near Los Alamos. She spent the night in the rugged terrain of Bandelier National Monument and was walking out the next day when rescuers found her. But the case prompted officials to warn searchers to be properly prepared for the outdoors. They also reminded the public it’s illegal to dig, bury an item or use a metal detector on federal lands.
Also a concern: Fenn says he has had people ringing the buzzer at his gate and trying to follow him when he leaves.
For the most part, though, he says people reaching out to him are just trying to convince or trick him into giving more clues.
So far, the best anyone seems to have gotten out of him is that the treasure is more than 300 miles west of Toledo, not in Nevada, and more than 5,000 feet above sea level “in the Rocky Mountains. (Santa Fe, whose Sangre de Cristo mountains mark the start of the Rockies, is 7,260 feet above sea level.)
But he emphasizes two things: He never said the treasure was buried, and he never said it was in Santa Fe, or even New Mexico for that matter.
Nietzel says the most common place the clues about “where warm waters halt” first lead people is to Eagle Nest Lake, about 100 miles north of Santa Fe, because it has a dam that holds back warm water and is known for its brown trout.
Others are sure it must be in Yellowstone, because of Fenn’s history there and his deep knowledge of the park.
Nietzel says he has made 29 searches for the treasure in six states, and he plans to resume his efforts when it gets a little warmer in the mountains.
Another friend of Fenn’s, Santa Fe jeweler Mark Howard, says he has made about 20 searches, and is “still trying to match my wits against a seemingly impossible poem.”
The scheme is similar to a treasure hunt launched in 1979 by the author of a British children’s book, “Masquerade,” which had clues to the location of an 18-carat jeweled golden hare hidden somewhere in Britain. That rabbit was found in 1982, although it was later revealed it was found with the help of the author’s former live-in girlfriend.
Fenn, who lives with his wife in a gated estate near the center of town, insists he is the only person who knows where his treasure is hidden. Asked what his two daughters, Kelly and Zoe, think of him hiding part of their and their seven kids’ inheritance, he replies only that “they’ve been saying for years that I am crazy.” He doubts they have any interest in finding it, but says he wouldn’t be surprised if one of two grandsons has gone looking for it.
And he is ambivalent about whether the chest is found soon, or even in his lifetime.
But “when a person finds that treasure chest, whether it’s tomorrow or 10,000 years from now and opens the lid, they are going to go into shock. It is such a sight.”