Hunt For A Millionaire’s HiddenTreasure

There’s gold in them thar hills! By “hills” I mean the Rocky Mountains.
And by “gold” I mean, well, gold, actually.

By Steven Joseph

Forrest Fenn

Forrest Fenn

But this isn’t your great-great-grandfather crying out, “Manifest Destiny!” and prospecting in California in the late 1840s. No, this gold has already been panned, found, refined, and processed and coined. And then after going through all of that trouble, collected in an ornate brass chest and promptly hidden again. Only in the case of this treasure hunt, the map is a series of cryptic clues, and no “x” marks the spot.

The treasure in question originally belonged to Forrest Fenn, a former Air Force pilot-turned art dealer who settled in New Mexico in the 1970s after retiring from the service. He and his wife opened the premier art gallery of the Southwest and soon attracted high-profile clientele including Jackie Onassis and Steven Spielberg.

Combined with a passion for American history, Forrest accumulated the largest private collection of Native North and South American artifacts in the world. Forrest’s collection boasts thousands of pieces of pottery, artwork, and even Sitting Bull’s favorite pipe. “Forrest has been a collector his whole life, he started as a child with marbles and as an adult that love transitioned into art, and then artifacts,” says longtime friend Michael McGarrity.

Thrill of Discovery
Eventually Fenn closed the gallery and began writing to pass the time. His books were mostly about exploration and archaeology but shared the common thread of the spirit of discovery. Then in the ’90s, Fenn was diagnosed with kidney cancer and not given an optimistic prognosis. His mortality looming, Forrest planned an elaborate treasure hunt as a play on traditional charity. Fenn spent his free time between cancer treatments acquiring the chest and filling it with 265 gold coins, gold nuggets, and jewelry.

Upon beating cancer, the idea of the treasure hunt became a reality as Forrest ventured off to hide the chest. In 2010, Fenn released his memoirs, The Thrill of the Chase, which
contained nine clues hidden in a poem that alluded to the treasure. Fenn’s book was self-published with the proceeds benefiting the local book store which carried the title, so at first, there was little buzz surrounding the three million dollar prize. But word soon spread, and with it, some bizarre and unintended consequences.
Indeed, in addition to hundreds of thousands of e-mails Forrest has received (he claims to have stopped counting at 65,000 three years ago), Fenn has also received death threats, stalkers, and one man even threatened to dig up his father’s grave. “I told him flat out, ‘For the sake of your family don’t do this,’” says McGarrity.

McGarrity and Fenn first met over 40 years ago when Santa Fe was still a small town of under 50,000 people. They became much better acquainted when McGarrity established himself as a writer of historical novels, which appealed to Forrest’s two passions. The first, of course, is his insatiable hunger for all things archaeological. But the second, and only observed by those who know him on a personal level, is celebrity. “Don’t let Forrest’s ‘Aw, shucks’ demeanor fool you,” McGarrity says. “He is loving the attention.”

As the treasure hunt gains notoriety and publicity, people have increasingly sought out Forrest for quotes and soundbites, but McGarrity warns, “He has a real ‘Will Rogers’ sense of humor.” Forrest himself has said, “Every writer ups the value of the treasure, so when it gets up to $20,000,000.00 I’m going back to get it.”  This year alone, more than 30,000 amateur treasure hunters will channel their inner Indiana Jones and head to New Mexico, Colorado, Wyoming, or Montana hoping to strike it rich. The search has led to a stark increase in tourism-related funds flowing into the four states, as well. “Of course it’s been a great economic boon to the area. One of the hotels here downtown even has ‘The Forrest Fenn Reuben’ on their lunch menu,” McGarrity adds. The treasure-related frenzy has grown each year, and with it so too has Forrest’s legacy. “I think the biggest disappointment for Forrest would be if someone finds or, has already found, the treasure, but is keeping it a secret, selling off the contents one piece at a time so as not to attract any attention,” muses McGarrity. “But Forrest tried to safeguard against that by including some really rare pieces that he would notice if they showed up at auction.”

Many wonder if the treasure is even real. Several sleuths claim to have already found Fenn’s millions, but that the treasure is intangible, that the journey is a spiritual one, and that the pot of gold at the end of this rainbow is the exquisite beauty of nature experienced along the way. When asked to prove the chest is indeed hidden, Forrest replies, “Well, you know the only way two people can keep a secret is if one of them is dead. So I could prove the existence of the treasure by taking you to it… but then
I wouldn’t want to be your insurance agent.”

Hunt For A Millionaire’s HiddenTreasure