By Craig Childs
The treasure chest hidden by the late Forrest Fenn was not large like you’d imagine of a pirate chest, but compact and heavy, its bronze forged and ornately decorated in seventeenth century Spain. You could have picked it up in both hands, straining from the weight of not just the bronze, but the treasure inside. In 2010, he stashed it, loaded and sealed, somewhere in the Rockies and put out clues. Three million dollars of gold pieces, jewels, and small, precious artifacts belonged to whomever might find the chest. Hundreds of thousands of people searched. At least five died while on the hunt.
In the summer of 2020, Fenn announced it had been discovered. He said he’d received a photograph from a person “back East” proving the chest had been found. He gave no name and said only that the location was in Wyoming. Hardly three months later, 90-year-old Fenn was dead. His death was determined to be from natural causes.
Considering the number of people who searched for the chest, some quitting their jobs and gambling on discovery, this conclusion must have been unsatisfying. It’s just like Fenn to leave with the last word, treasure discovered by no one named, location none of your business, tracks covered by his own death. It is as if Fenn wrote the ending himself.
My last dealings with the Santa Fe art dealer were years ago. Fenn sent me angry emails accusing me of black journalism, calling me an informant after I’d interviewed and written about him, casting him in a mildly unfavorable light. As an artifact collector, he had dismayed many archaeologists. In New Mexico he’d bought a piece of land on which stands the ruins of an abandoned, multi-hundred-room Pueblo abandoned about 350 years ago. He turned the site into a private excavation, his finds stored in the house, a heavy bound book printed about his discoveries.
I replied that I had no grudge against him, and found him to be a fascinating man. I’d done no informing other than what I’d published, sharing only what he shared with me. After our heated exchange, he invited me to a cocktail party in Santa Fe. I declined.
The word “trickster” comes to mind. In the early 80s, Fenn put up an exhibition of high art forgeries, claiming them as originals. As they were being admired, prices negotiated, he announced the sham, the joke on everyone. “If you like it less because it’s a fake, who is the fraud now?” he said at the time. He turned around and sold the replicas for a high price, all of them painted by a single forger, Elmyr de Hory. It was a setup, a publicity stunt; not just for sales, but to make fools of his clients.
The hunt he kicked off for a treasure chest was probably no different. He may have actually hidden it, and it may have actually been found. Or not. Whichever the case, he was enjoying our vanities.
Fenn was 78 years old in 2008 when I interviewed him. Gracious and beaming with sly enthusiasm, he invited me into the personal museum of his Santa Fe home. It was a tour of ages, bits of Pompeii and Chaco, statues on pedestals, painted skulls, rugs, and Native American robes on the walls. He showed off a series of bronze bells he had cast, explaining how he was going to bury them around the world with his memoirs sealed inside. He wanted them to be discovered centuries from now. On one of the bells, he had inscribed the words: “If you should ever think of me a thousand years from now, please ring my bell so I will know.”
That’s what I found fascinating about him, his sense of time, so many artifacts and antiquities flowing through his hands it was hard to tell which century he occupied. As if telling the punchline of a joke, he said the tongue inside his inscribed bell came from a seventeenth-century Spanish mission bell. I asked how he felt about scavenging artifacts this way, not preserving the original bell for its own history. “Save the past for the future?” he said. “When is the future? Give me a date.”
Fenn kept the treasure chest in a vault inside the house. Shelves and workspaces were busy with artifacts, and one was his open chest overflowing with jade, gold, silver, and emeralds. He lifted out a tarnished silver bracelet with inlaid turquoise beads and said, “This is the bracelet Richard Wetherill had made after he discovered Cliff Palace—when was it?—1888! And these twenty-two beads are the very ones he collected that day!”
He told me the plan was to hide this treasure and leave clues, setting off a hunt. When he told me this, I said I could hide it for him and it wouldn’t be found for thousands of years. He said he wanted it to be found in his lifetime.
Fenn got his wish, or so it seems. Someone from back East may now have Wetherill’s bracelet, along with a few million dollars in loot. Or perhaps Fenn somehow slipped out a back door, bracelet and mask in hand, laughing his way into the afterlife.