Forrest Fenn, art dealer who enticed thousands to hunt for hidden treasure, dies at 90

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Forrest Fenn, art dealer who enticed thousands to hunt for hidden treasure, dies at 90
Forrest Fenn at his home in Santa Fe, N.M., June 17, 2016. Fenn, an eccentric New Mexico art dealer who enticed thousands to search for hidden treasure after he announced in a 2010 book that he had stashed a bronze chest filled with gold nuggets, diamonds and other jewels somewhere in the Rocky Mountains, died on Monday at his home in Santa Fe, N.M. He was 90. Nick Cote/The New York Times.

by Michael Levenson

NEW YORK (NYT NEWS SERVICE).- Forrest Fenn, an eccentric New Mexico art dealer who enticed thousands to search for hidden treasure after he announced in a 2010 book that he had stashed a bronze chest filled with gold nuggets, diamonds and other jewels somewhere in the Rocky Mountains, died Monday at his home in Santa Fe, New Mexico. He was 90.

Fenn’s death was confirmed by a grandson, Shiloh Old. Fenn appeared to have died of natural causes, according to the Santa Fe Police Department.

Fenn died just three months after he said someone had finally found the cache of gold nuggets, sapphires, diamonds, pre-Columbian artifacts and other riches that he had hidden in the mountains. He had estimated the treasure to be worth $2 million.

“It was under a canopy of stars in the lush, forested vegetation of the Rocky Mountains and had not moved from the spot where I hid it more than 10 years ago,” Fenn said on his website in June. He did not elaborate on the exact location.

“I do not know the person who found it, but the poem in my book led him to the precise spot,” said Fenn, whose self-published 2010 memoir, “The Thrill of the Chase,” provided clues to the location in the verses of a cryptic poem.

A man who did not want to be named had found the chest, Fenn told a local newspaper, The Santa Fe New Mexican. Fenn said the discovery had been confirmed by a photograph that the man had sent him.

A former Air Force combat pilot who grew up reading adventure stories about pirates, cowboys and Indians, Fenn decided to start a treasure hunt decades ago, after he learned that he had kidney cancer.

Originally, he planned to have his remains buried along with the riches.

But when he recovered from cancer, he said, he ventured alone into the Rockies with precious items culled from his collection — “265 gold coins, hundreds of gold nuggets, hundreds of rubies, eight emeralds, two Ceylon sapphires, many diamonds, two ancient Chinese jade carvings, pre-Columbian gold bracelets and fetishes, and more.”

In “The Thrill of the Chase,” he said the treasure was ensconced somewhere in the Rockies at 5,000 feet above sea level. “Begin it where warm waters halt,” one clue read, “and take it in the canyon down.”

Fenn said he had no other motivation for starting the hunt than to encourage families to “get off their couches.” And get off their couches they did.

In 2016, he estimated that more than 65,000 people had joined the quest for the cache, guided by nothing more than Fenn’s word, and the clues in his enigmatic, 24-verse poem. Several websites obsessively tracked the hunt.

Dal Neitzel, a retired documentary filmmaker, was among the thousands entranced by Fenn’s story. He estimated that he had searched more than 90 times for the treasure across New Mexico, Montana and Wyoming, and said he had become friends with Fenn after he sent him an email after his first fruitless search for the riches in 2011.

“I think most of the searchers were just giant kids at heart,” said Neitzel, 72. “What kid didn’t have a lot of fun pretending they were going to find a lost chest of gold that some pirate had hidden? It’s just an extension of your childhood. But instead of it being pretend, it was real. And that made it more fun for adults.”

Still, he said the search wasn’t always “fun and games.” He noted that Fenn attracted a “lot of negativity” from people who accused him of perpetrating a hoax or endangering the lives of treasure hunters unprepared for dangerous treks in the Rockies.

At least two people died trying to follow Fenn’s clues, and the chief of the New Mexico State Police urged Fenn to call off the hunt in 2017, saying it was putting lives at risk.

Fenn did not end the quest, but he clarified that the valuables were not in an area that an octogenarian would find hard to reach.

“He loved families and he loved the idea of getting them out in the mountains and the open air, and his great joy was talking to the families that were seeking the treasure,” said Dorothy Massey, the owner of Collected Works Bookstore in Santa Fe, who called Fenn a friend and a mentor. “That was the important thing to him.”

Massey said Fenn had given her store the publishing rights to “The Thrill of the Chase,” which drew so many explorers to Santa Fe that it had “quite an effect on the general economy of the city.”

Forrest Burke Fenn was born Aug. 22, 1930, in Temple, Texas. He spent idyllic summers fishing around Yellowstone National Park, and hunting for arrowheads with his father, a schoolteacher, and his football coach, both avid collectors. He found his first arrowhead when he was 9 and told The New York Times in 2017 that it was still “the most prized possession in my collection.”

“My father taught me to not dwell on the centerline, but to go out to the edge and see what was there,” he said. “That thought manifested itself in many ways in my later life.”

Fenn graduated from Temple High School in 1947 but struggled academically and joined the Air Force in 1950 after studying for several years at Temple Junior College, according to the Super Sabre Society, an organization dedicated to the history of the F-100 Super Sabre and the pilots who flew the aircraft.

As a pilot in the Vietnam War, he flew 328 combat missions in 348 days and was shot down twice, in Vietnam and Laos, he said.

In the 1970s and 1980s, the Santa Fe art gallery he opened attracted big-name buyers. A 1986 profile in People magazine reported that former President Gerald R. Ford, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Robert Redford, Cher and Steve Martin were among the patrons paying high prices for oil paintings and Native American art and artifacts.

Fenn is survived by his wife, Peggy Fenn, daughters Zoe and Kelly, and seven grandchildren, Old said.

After Fenn became better known for hiding treasure, he often struck a philosophical tone when asked about the pursuit, insisting it was not about wealth, but about adventure.

“My hidden treasure pulls families into the Rocky Mountains to search and hike, and observe the raw nature that is there,” he told The Times in 2017. “They go home with a whole new perspective on what life is all about. In this troubled world, we need some of that.”

© 2020 The New York Times Company

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