"I’M SURE not going to die in a hospital bed,” Forrest Fenn likes to say, and at 82-years-old his is not an idle promise.
Fenn has spent his life as a treasure hunter, a real-life Indiana Jones who has bought, sold, traded, and dug his way to a peerless collection of artifacts. Now he is determined to avoid becoming “the leftovers of history” himself. And he recently set in motion a plan he thinks will make headlines — a thousand years from now.
Behind the adobe walls of his Santa Fe compound, inside the red, pantry-size steel vault that protects some of his most valuable pieces, Fenn (pictured below right) says he opened an antique lockbox and began to fill it with more than a million dollars’ worth of treasure.
He tossed in ancient figurines, a 17th-century Spanish ring, and turquoise beads excavated from a cliff dwelling near Mesa Verde. He added American eagle gold coins, gold nuggets, a vial of gold dust, two gold discs, and “a lot of jewellery,” including rubies, sapphires, and diamonds.
Among these wonders he included a copy of his own autobiography, rolled and stuffed into an ancient olive jar. Then he went “into the mountains north of Santa Fe”, and hid the lockbox, to be found by anyone who can decipher the clues embedded in a 24-line poem that ends: “So hear me all and listen good, Your effort will be worth the cold. If you are brave and in the wood I give you title to the gold.”
But Fenn isn’t done. When the time comes he hopes to shove one more element in with the bounty: his own dead body. “When people find the treasure, they’ll find my bones,” he explains, with the sound of his native Texas in every syllable. “But my bio will be inside so at least they’ll know who I was.” A man who certainly is not going to die in a hospital bed.
As bizarre as it sounds, Fenn’s plans for his death mirror the way he has lived. For nearly two decades, he ran one of the world’s finest art galleries, catering to people atop the totem pole in Washington and Hollywood, from US president Gerald Ford to Jackie Kennedy, John Wayne and Cher.
They came for major works by Frederic Remington or Georgia O’Keeffe. Or for Native American antiquities that surpassed the Smithsonian’s. Or for the mirage-like experience of it all, the private planes and chauffeured limos, the guest houses with gold fixtures, catered meals, and in-house masseuses. Or just to see Fenn hand-feed his favourite pet, a Louisiana alligator named Beowulf.
Fenn became a celebrity in his own right, feted by Forbes and People magazines. His story even inspired a mass-market thriller, The Codex, about “a notorious treasure hunter and tomb robber” who accumulated “priceless art, gems, and artifacts before vanishing”.
But Fenn never lost his rogue’s way with rules and regulations. The signs in his gallery encouraged people to touch everything, to put their hands on the past — just as Fenn has done since he found his first arrowhead and began his great American climb.
The same ethos is on display in his home, which operates like a museum, but with no guards, better inventory, and a price list. On a recent tour, I rapped the shell of a mummified falcon from King Tut’s tomb (not for sale), slipped a finger through a jade mask older than Jesus ($12,500), and beheld Sitting Bull’s peace pipe, spiritual centrepiece of Custer’s last stand (appraised at $1.1m).
After an undercover agent took a similar tour in 2009, the federal government raided Fenn’s house as part of the biggest ever suspected case of grave-robbing — code named Cerberus Action, after the mythical three-headed dog that guards the underworld. The case is ongoing, according to the FBI, which declined to discuss it.
Fenn’s relationship to the law can be hard to pinpoint. He denies all wrongdoing in one breath, only to brag of his exploits in the next, swaggering toward self-incrimination in the process. He says he can’t discuss the FBI case, for example, because his lawyer told him, “if you talk about it, you could lose it”. (Fenn later told me he misspoke.) He hasn’t exactly gone into hiding either.
In 2010 he self-published The Thrill of the Chase — a memoir that announced the hidden treasure and, as he later put it, invited people to have “as much fun finding it as I have had all these years collecting it”.
Fenn says everything you need to find his treasure is in his poem. And two years later, the community in search of Fenn’s treasure is large and frighteningly devoted. “You have attained mythical and hallucinogenic proportions in my mind,” read one recent note from a digger, which Fenn flagged as “typical of a few thousand emails I have received”.
Fenn has had to talk people out of digging his neighbour’s property, as well as his parents’ and brother’s graves and his own backyard. “I’ve created a monster,” he says.
But interpreting the poem — described by one hunter as “the vaguest damned thing ever written” — will require seeing the West through Fenn’s eyes, which is what I travelled to Santa Fe to do, along with a little treasure hunting of my own.
I spent the better part of a week with the white-haired retiree, as he sipped buttermilk and tried to avoid dropping hints about his future burial site. For the first time since the raid, he spoke at length about the origins of his epic collection and bizarre plan to shove himself into the historical record. We even went digging together.
All buried treasure glitters more than its backstory, but as Fenn’s treasure passes into the pantheon of findable millions, hunters beware: the untold history of this cache — and the man behind it — may be stranger and more cursed than most.
At the height of his gallery days in Santa Fe, Fenn’s staff numbered 16 and sales topped $6m a year. Every floorboard told a story: Steven Spielberg begging for carved antique ceiling beams; Steve Martin showing up with his girlfriend’s homemade banana bread; the Chinese minister of culture breaking the knob on a toggle-style light switch. Santa Fe society was flush with tales about the invader Texan with expensive tastes.
And yet, despite the attention, Fenn remained essentially mysterious. He had arrived in 1972 as nobody, a middle-aged Air Force veteran with a modest retirement, a high-school degree, and not a lick of experience in the art world. Shortly thereafter, he was a millionaire. The question was how?
In part, his timing was good. He arrived just as people moved to the Sunbelt and adopted a cowboy-and-Indian decorating motif. And he was bright. One of his final military efficiency reports reads like a movie poster decorated with critical raves: “high caliber”, “truly amazing”, “can do anything”.
But people kept looking for something more, “some secret which would more adequately explain his far-reaching success”, as a friend wrote in a 1981 book about the Western art world. Another friend took to calling Fenn the Wizard of Oz, “a former flim-flam man” who inspired a following. State and federal officials were curious, too. They wanted to know how, exactly, Fenn had acquired so much powerful inventory, and so quickly. “His name has come up as a person of interest for decades,” says Phil Young, a retired National Parks Service investigator.
To some degree, Fenn invited this kind of attention. He was a self-described “hustler,” spending the first hour of every day, “well, scheming isn’t a good word, but just planning”, he told me. “I wanted to play Monopoly. I wanted to turn one into two and four into nine.”
And he did precisely that, buying his paintings low, mouthing off about them for a few years, and selling high. As for how he got himself into the game to begin with, it’s not so complicated, really. He dug his way in.
Fenn has always been unusually good at giving himself advantages. As a boy he whittled yo-yos and ground shooting marbles to sell, earning enough money to eat like the kids in the brick houses. To the great shame of his old man, a lifelong teacher and principal, Fenn was a delinquent student.
“I was his disappointment,” he writes in an unpublished family history. But the land in Central Texas is an open-air museum, and Forrest and his father came together there, picking up whatever washed to the surface: arrowheads, beads, pieces of pottery. “Grab every banana,” his father used to say while they were out on hunts together, baffling his son.
One day he elaborated: “He said, ‘Son, the train doesn’t go by that banana tree but one time, so you reach as far out as you can, because every banana you don’t grab is a banana you’ll never have’. And then we walked on in the mud and we picked up some arrowheads.” Fenn still has his first one, found when he was about nine-years-old, starting him on the thrill of the chase.
The chase accelerated when Fenn joined the Air Force in 1950, and was transferred to Bitburg, Germany, later that decade. As a fighter pilot, he was allowed to take out jets for fun, and for Fenn that meant going where there was history.
“I was thrown out of Pompeii three times,” he boasts about his visits to the Roman city buried in ash and mud in 79 AD. “But I found amphora full of olive oil and full of wine.”
Another weekend he flew to Libya and swam off the coast of Sabratha, an ancient Phoenician port. He spotted something in the water beneath him and yanked it up using a rope and a Jeep.
It was another amphora — the ancient ceramic container — and when he cracked it open he found bronze coins welded together by salt water. But Fenn’s favourite place to explore was the Sahara, where “you could find 8,000-year-old spear points, made when the desert was wheat fields, next to a German skeleton or hand grenade or a burned-out tank.”
It wasn’t until 1960 that Fenn’s collecting flowered into a kind of obsession. “Relentless.” “Insatiable.” “Excessive.” “Rabid.” Those are Fenn’s own words. He landed a job teaching at Luke Air Force Base in Arizona, America’s “archeological mecca”, the setting for centuries of human occupation and at least 500,000 graves. Today most of those graves are believed to have been plundered, but in Fenn’s day much of the area was still pristine.
“In my mind,” he says, “I’ve always been the best in the world at collecting cool things.” From the sky, he learned to spot ruins by the pattern of cacti. Other times he would slice through canyons looking for hidden cliff dwellings and caves. The most promising sites he would investigate by Jeep.
He ran into partners: a tall, lantern-jawed cowboy named Bill Robinson, who lived out near what became Route 66, and John Whitaker, a second-generation highway worker who learned to hunt artifacts while laying pavement.
Fenn is shy about detailing their exploits, but two of Whitaker’s daughters remember Fenn well, and so does another relative, then a teen, who sometimes went along for digs. Fenn was dashing to the two adolescent girls, Marilyn and Barbara. They recall him flying low in his F-100, buzzing the top of their father’s Chevy pickup, and unleashing a sonic boom that shook the desert. Later he’d appear in their kitchen, beckoning their father to go for a ride.
The legality of these digs is murky, a matter of interpreting outdated laws, decades-old court decisions, and specific questions of geography. Since 1906, however, it has been illegal to take anything from public land without permission, let alone disturb historic gravesites, which were often the site of the most valuable riches.
“You can’t dig out there without digging up some graves,” admits the group’s teenage tag-along. Fenn, in conversations recorded by law enforcement, recounts digging in Arizona and removing a stone axe from the remains of an Indian who was crushed by a boulder.
Fenn and his two partners got themselves into all kinds of slapstick trouble as well. Scampering out of an exploratory hole after a rattlesnake or a centipede squirmed through the wall. Or getting yanked ankles-first out of a collapsed cave, spitting sand and hollering. One day the men were in a cave, “digging to their hearts’ content”, Barbara Whitaker recalls her father telling her, when they heard the whomp-whomp of a rotary blade growing louder and louder.
“We’re screwed,” was the general feeling inside the chamber, no use fighting it. They walked out into the sunlight, expecting to be arrested by a green-suited ranger, she says. Instead they found a US senator, Barry Goldwater. He wasn’t there to bust them. He just wanted to dig, too. Fenn would not corroborate this story, but he did say this: when Goldwater wanted to take a group of Washington types out for a dig, he called Fenn, who recalls taking the expedition out in an Air Force helicopter. No one seemed concerned with the laws. “These were US senators,” Fenn says. “They make the laws.”
The gang broke up by the mid-1960s, when Fenn was transferred to a base in Texas. But it was breaking up anyway, Whitaker’s children understood from their father, because Fenn wasn’t just taking a treasure or two but returning to caves and stripping them clean. This was too much for John Whitaker, who had taken a job as a water manager on the Navajo reservation. Of the three, only Fenn turned it into a profession, says Barbara. “He saw something that he could cash in on, and he made his family fortune on it.”
Fenn rejects the claim that he grabbed every banana, and then he started trading them. “I’ll trade a bracelet for six rings then give three of the rings for a bracelet and a necklace,” he told Forbes in 1978. He also says he took in money by casting bronze statues, using a crucible he “scrounged” from the Air Force, and the metal from “a midnight requisition” of four sprinkler heads from a Texas Tech practice football field.
By 1972 he had enough cash and inventory to move to Santa Fe, partnering with a local Indian artifacts trader. Within a year, the trader wanted to back out, fearing damage to his reputation with the Indians. But Fenn had his footing by then. He found an angel investor and began to build Fenn Galleries, buying, selling, and trading his way up the totem pole for the next 17 years.
The idea for the treasure dates to 1987, when Fenn’s father was diagnosed with pancreatic cancer. The man took 50 sleeping pills and died at home in Texas, a few hours before Forrest could land in his plane. The following year, Fenn was diagnosed with kidney cancer and given a slim chance of living. He started thinking about what he would leave behind. “What can one person do that might impact life a thousand years from now?” he asked himself. One idea was to bury bronze bells, stuffed with his life story. He has buried eight of them so far.
His other idea was the treasure chest. There has been a 20-odd-year delay for the simple reason that Fenn beat cancer. But he has used his second lease on life very much like he used his first. He sold his gallery, built a mansion on the Old Santa Fe Trail, and bought his very own Indian ruin. (America is the only wealthy country that gives land owners title to archeology, putting artifacts in the same category as oil or gold.)
Fenn’s ruin is San Lazaro Pueblo, the largest and most significant in the area, and, since 1964, a National Historic Landmark. People lived there from about 1200 to the late 1800s, and it contains artifacts the Indians hastily jettisoned around the time of the area’s first contact with a European army.
“He hit the mother lode,” the state archeologist said when Fenn bought the ruin. But Fenn uses it for fun. “It’s a retreat for me, a place to get away,” he says. “I’ll go out and sit on the medicine rock, drink a Coca-Cola or something, and I can look out and see Coronado coming up Del Char Creek with 13 legionaries in armour.”
And he digs. He has thousands of pieces — a shattered Spanish mission bell, a phallic-shaped religious item, a charred arrow, one of the oldest dance masks ever found. All of it neatly and obsessively stored in Tupperware containers, Altoid tins, and velvet-lined jewellery boxes. He compares digging to breathing, and collecting to slaking a burning thirst. New Mexico’s current state archeologist, Eric Blinman, has been invited to San Lazaro and seen Fenn in full dig. “It’s like a drug high,” Blinman told Newsweek.
Even here it’s hard to tell whether Fenn’s digging has crossed any legal lines. Twenty-two years ago, New Mexico accused him of disturbing graves on his pueblo, alleging “obvious human remains” that were “piled and scattered”.
Fenn got the complaint thrown out when he learned that the state had trespassed to collect its evidence. But to this day he doesn’t deny finding possible graves. “The key word [in the law] is ‘discover’,” Fenn says. “We’ve found bones that might have been human, but we didn’t ‘discover’ that they were, so we covered them up and moved some place else.”
Descendants of the San Lazaro pueblo pray for him, and the head of the National Congress of the American Indian told me he believes that collectors like Fenn are cursed. But only a distant barbed-wire fence and signs that say “Federal Property” seem to curb Fenn’s pursuit of the past. “What’s the difference between here and there?” I asked, after Fenn and I had spent the day picking up bone pieces, beads, pottery, and shell-and-turquoise pendants. He knew exactly: “Eighteen months in jail and a $10,000 fine.”
One morning I didn’t see Fenn for breakfast because I had a rendezvous with one of the groups searching for his treasure. There are thousands of them out there, to judge by treasure forums, the contents of Fenn’s email box, and sales of his memoir. He donated the entire printing to a bookstore in downtown Santa Fe, which in turn will donate a portion of its sales to a cancer fund. Fenn says he wrote the book “for every redneck out there with a pickup truck, six kids, just lost his job, his wife, and lacks adventure”.
But the people who have found the trail are a more diverse bunch than that. On his Thrill of the Chase blog, Dal Neitzel, a cinematographer who has done work for CNN, reports run-ins with a mysterious girl in a mid-century red pickup truck and green mud boots, and two young guys from Los Angeles in a black Hummer.
Fenn himself has heard from a loveable cross-section of bumblers. One college kid trekked to a river location, remembering rope, gloves, wetsuit, booties, mask and fins — everything but an air tank. Another hopeful travelled to a lake in winter, stepped out of a subcompact rental car and plunged into “a dark blackened landslide of ice and snow”. One of my favourite notes from a searcher is also the simplest. “Stumped,” it reads. “Defeated.”
My team were in a similar mood when I first contacted them. The four had driven down from the Iowa flatlands, three high-school buddies plus a childhood friend. Mark Dreyer, a real-estate broker had recruited his cousin Chad Claude, who works in logistics, who in turn recruited paramedic Gary Merrill, and Scott Rath, who handles scheduling for a livestock operation. They considered Vegas together. They hoped this would be even better.
For six months they prepared, meeting for treasure sessions at Pizza Ranch. Then they packed up Claude’s SUV, taking beef jerky, bullets, men’s magazines, a first-aid kit, and everything four 40-year-old men could need for five days in the woods.
Their interpretation of the poem led to a 13-mile stretch in and around New Mexico’s Cimarron Canyon and Eagle Nest Lake state parks and the Carson National Forest — where they only found a “bear” that turned out to be a kid fishing, and a bitter moment when a motorcade of fancy cars drove by. They imagined Fenn inside one of them, laughing like a cartoon villain.
When Merrill got my email asking to meet, the guys were drinking in a hotel bar. I convinced them to stay one more day, promising to share my own interpretation of the poem. By now I was caught up in the hunt, sure my original reporting would help, and happy to split treasure for the sheer story alone.
But they wanted to return to Cimarron. We walked around in the woods, holding crumpled copies of Fenn’s poem and regarding the underbrush until a ranger told us we needed a permit to hike.
At lunch I asked the guys what they thought about the more controversial chapters in Fenn’s history. They shrugged. “What’s the difference between the scene of a car accident and a ruin?” Merrill said. “Or a Spanish galleon?” Rath added. “It’s not like he’s a cocaine dealer,” said Dreyer. They left that night, sending Fenn a thank-you email, and pledging another trip.
On my last day, I met Fenn at his house to say goodbye. I brought a bag of artifacts with me, the stuff I had picked up on his private ruin. I felt guilty about keeping them, and nervous about flying with them.
“I don’t believe you,” Fenn snapped. “You didn’t feel guilty when you pulled them up.” I told him about the idea of a curse, about how every day Indian tribes and federal agencies get packages in mail, filled with Indian relics and pleading, apologetic notes from desperate people.
Fenn shook his head. “I look cursed to you?” I left the artifacts anyway. Recently, he emailed to say they had been bulldozed back into the dirt at San Lazaro, and claimed they weren’t happy there.
“They’re in the dark,” he said, just like his treasure chest. But only for now.
The clues to the treasure’s location are hidden in The Thrill of the Chase, the most important one being this poem:
- (c) 2013 Newsweek/Daily Beast