'I love mysteries,' says man claiming hidden gold

Published on NewsOK Modified: March 30, 2013 at 9:09 pm •  Published: March 30, 2013
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SANTA FE, N.M. (AP) — 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 the 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."

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