He was an explorer, a businessman, a warrior, a writer — a man who came to see art as something more than mere whisks of paint.
But it was his challenge to the world — hiding a chest full of coins and other antiquities somewhere in the Rocky Mountains — that finally set Forrest Fenn apart.
Fenn, the Santa Fe artifacts dealer and military veteran who created a treasure hunt that mesmerized the world, died Monday at his Santa Fe home.
Police say he died of natural causes at age 90.
His mark on the world
Fenn served as a fighter pilot in the U.S. Air Force, earning a number of military citations and awards; ran several art galleries; wrote numerous books; and collected artifacts from New Mexico and around the globe.
But he likely will remain best known for the pursuit of treasure he inspired in hundreds of thousands of thrill-seekers in the last decade of his life. He launched the hunt in 2010 in his memoir, The Thrill of the Chase.
Earlier this year, he announced the chase was over. The chest had been found.
Longtime treasure hunter Cynthia Meachum of Albuquerque said in an email Tuesday that Fenn gave her and other hunters inspiration.
“But he gave us so much more than that,” she wrote. “… The never ending desire to continue to explore new places … follow our dreams … and to never stop yearning to discover that new adventure ahead.”
Fenn lived a life of adventure — exploring Yellowstone National Park as a child, serving as a fighter pilot in Vietnam and excavating an ancient pueblo he had purchased. He wanted others to experience the joy of outdoor adventures as well.
Especially after he was diagnosed with cancer, Fenn began looking for a way to leave his mark on the world. He found the answer in what would become the world’s largest modern-day treasure hunt.
He’d had so much fun building his collection of artifacts, Fenn wrote in The Thrill of the Chase, “why not let others come searching for some of it while I’m still here, and maybe continue looking for it after I’m gone?”
Fenn said he loaded a bronze chest with gold, jewelry and a number of other valuable artifacts. And he included a poem in the memoir that he said contained nine clues to the treasure’s whereabouts, somewhere in the Rockies north of Santa Fe.
By Fenn’s count, some 350,000 people went looking for the hidden booty, primarily in New Mexico, Colorado, Arizona and Wyoming, until his announcement in June that a man from the East Coast had found the chest.
He never identified the man and only revealed later, after facing pressure from treasure hunters and others, that it had been hidden in Wyoming.
The discovery deflated many treasure hunters’ hopes. Some questioned whether the news was true.
While the hunt generated excitement about the great outdoors, it also came with a cost. Several people died while searching for the treasure. Many others became lost in the wild, prompting dangerous rescues.
An unknown number spent all their spare time and savings on a fruitless search.
Fenn urged treasure seekers to take safety precautions — but he refused to call off the hunt.
In The Thrill of the Chase, he questioned whether a man who had not achieved greatness could still be “somehow entitled to leave a slight footprint.”
Fenn did more than that. The search for his treasure prompted array of TV news shows, newspaper and magazine articles, and documentary films, drawing more treasure seekers to the Rockies.
The search also spawned an annual gathering of campers at Hyde Memorial State Park known as Fennboree.
Early life and lessons
Fenn was a native of Temple, Texas. His father was an educator and principal at the school he attended.
In his memoir, he related a lesson from his childhood.
He wrote that his seventh grade Spanish teacher had told his father he had called her an “old bat.”
Fenn had told the teacher his father also referred to her as an old bat, he wrote. When his father learned what he had said to the teacher, the man told young Fenn, “What we’ve learned is that you should always tell the truth, but you should not always tell ALL of the truth.”
The discussion was “better than all the diplomas in Texas,” Fenn wrote. “I had just learned about fear, hate, ethics, dread, moralities, passion, honesty, subterfuge, truth and a bunch of other things I can’t even remember anymore.”
During a one-year tour of duty in Vietnam in the late 1960s, he learned about the futility of war. He flew well over 300 missions and was shot down twice. Reflecting on his own role in the conflict and the price the world had paid, he wrote that the 58,000-plus American deaths would become “but an asterisk in the history of a forgotten war.”
“How unfortunate it is that world leaders are constantly bringing war and death to those of us who are doomed to follow their dictates,” he wrote.
A penchant for collecting
Following his military service, Fenn opened an art gallery and eventually settled in Santa Fe. He faced scrutiny after purchasing some oil paintings by Elmyr de Hory, a Hungarian painter and forger of French impressionist works.
Fenn said he sold the paintings to people who had signed documents confirming they understood they were buying a forgery “regardless of how it was signed on the front of the canvas,” as he put it in a second memoir, Too Far to Walk.
The national media attention did not stop the works from selling.
“If you like it less just because it’s a fake, who is the fraud now?” he wrote in the book.
That was not the only controversy he encountered during his art-collecting years.
In 2009, federal agents raided his home during a crackdown on the illegal Native American art trade. Though agents took three artifacts from Fenn’s home for further investigation, he was never charged with a crime and denied any wrongdoing.
Fenn bought pueblo ruins on property in the Galisteo Basin in the 1980s. While he excavated the site, he also hosted expeditions there for youth who were either interested in archaeology or who were looking for purpose.
Some archaeologists praised Fenn’s willingness to open the site to others. Others said they wished he had worked more closely with experts to dig at the site.
Tim Maxwell, former director of the New Mexico Office of Archeological Studies, said Tuesday, “Forrest forged ongoing associations with some in the archaeological community but had a tense relationship with many others. There were worries that he was excavating San Lazaro for commercial purposes.
“Forrest said he would never sell objects found at San Lazaro, and he added a room onto his home to store and study the artifacts,” Maxwell continued. “As far as I know, every artifact is still there. He also purchased exceptional private collections and allowed scholars to study them.”
Maxwell said Fenn told him he sold the pueblo site some time ago.
Fenn’s memoirs are full of amusing and charming anecdotes about his life, ranging from his adoration for his older brother, known as Skippy, his fondness for animals and his penchant for collecting things — including soda pop cans (his favorite: Grapette).
His desire to be remembered comes through in both books.
“The thought occurred to me that I may soon become an obsolete entity in my whole story-writing process, and that bothers me a lot,” he wrote in Too Far To Walk.
Fenn and his wife, Peggy, had two daughters, Kelly and Zoe.
A woman who answered the phone at Fenn’s home Tuesday afternoon said the family “has no comment at this moment.”
In her email, Meachum said, “Forrest is still with us … just at a different address.”