A New Mexico multimillionaire wants you to get off the couch and go searching for hidden treasure.
Fenn, 82, believes too many Americans spend their free time watching TV
or playing video games. He hopes the bounty he hid - a chest filled
with millions of dollars in gold coins, diamonds and emeralds, among
other gems - will prompt some to explore the outdoors. "Get your kids
out in the countryside, take them fishing and get them away from their
little hand-held machines," he told TODAY.
Fenn hid the chest in a secret spot three years ago with two goals in
mind: Getting people to fall in love with America's scenic trails and
passing on what he calls the "thrill of the chase," something he has
experienced over more than seven decades of hunting for rare objects.
Thrill of the Chase" is also the title of Fenn's self-published
autobiography, which contains an unusual map to the treasure, a poem with 9 clues in it. "Begin it where warm waters halt, and take it in the canyon down, not far, but too far to walk," reads part of the poem. (On Wednesday morning, Fenn's site crashed after TODAY featured his story.)
Fe jeweler Marc Howard has gone searching for the treasure 20
times. "If you read the poem, you'll go, 'Oh my God, how am I gonna find
it from this?" said Howard, who makes custom engagement rings. He plans
to use the bounty for designing new jewels. "What could a goldsmith
want, but free rein with gold?"
The chest, weighing in at over 40 pounds, contains items Fenn has
accumulated over more than seven decades of a life that reads like an
adventure novel. His love for rare artifacts started at the age of 9,
when he discovered a Native American arrowhead near his hometown of
Temple, Texas. The son of a teacher, Fenn struggled with his grades and
after graduation chose the Air Force over college.
"I couldn't see
myself sitting in a classroom for four more years," Fenn said. During
the Vietnam War, he flew hundreds of missions and said he was shot down
twice, in South Vietnam and again in Laos. Even while fighting, the
highly decorated pilot didn't surrender the search for rare objects,
flying to Pompeii in his off-time to find artifacts.
later, he came out of the Air Force with a pension that helped him feed
his family, but it was in dealing artifacts and art that he grew his
savings into a fortune.
In the 1970s, the father of two opened
Fenn Gallery on Paseo de Peralta in Santa Fe. The family slept on a
mattress on the floor, but eventually moved into a house complete with a
home office for his objects, made by Southwestern tribes that he either
dug up himself or purchased. "I never went to college, I never studied
business, I never studied art," said Fenn in his studio, surrounded by
perfectly organized rows of leather moccasins, pottery, beaded dolls and
book-filled shelves. "I had imagination, I had guts that made my
imagination worth something to me and I was willing to work."
In 1988, Fenn was at the top of his career as an art dealer, with
clients including Ralph Lauren, Robert Redford and Suzanne Somers, when
he received devastating news: He had advanced kidney cancer. His
diagnosis showed he had only a 20 percent chance of surviving the next
So Fenn started to consider his legacy.
worked on his clue-poem for years, and took his time collecting items to
put in the chest. When he felt the treasure was complete and he was
strong enough to carry it, he buried it.
"After I hid the treasure
I walked back to my car feeling very proud of myself and laughing out
loud," he said. "I asked, 'Forrest, did you really do that?' There have
never been any regrets. Now it is for the ages and a big part of me in
that treasure chest. I felt it go in as I closed the lid for the last
passion for collecting hasn't been without controversy. In 2009,
federal agents raided his home as part of an operation tracking Native
American artifacts that may have been illegally obtained. Fenn was never
charged. "Out of thousands of objects (the agents) seized four
artifacts, none of which were shown to be illegal," said Fenn's attorney
Today, the hunt for his treasure has attracted an international
following. Fenn has received close to 7,500 emails on the subject. Some
ask for guidance on whether to use a metal detector. Others thank him
for inspiring a family vacation. One man who said his son always needs a
tangible reward, like a milkshake, to go on outings, wrote "thanks for
dangling a slightly more attractive offer in front of him to get him out
with his old man again."
Some wonder if there is a treasure at
all. But Howard, the jeweler, who knows Fenn well, sees no reason to
question the collector's word. "Forrest is one of the most honest men I
know," he said. "If he says he did something, he did it."
believer is filmmaker Dal Neitzel, who has traveled more than a thousand
miles in his search, clues in hand. He has even plunged into freezing
waterfalls because part of the poem reads "There'll be no paddle up your
creek, Just heavy loads and water high."
Nietzel and Howard
alone have fulfilled Fenn's goal of getting more people to fall in love
with the outdoors. "What drags me out here is the beauty," says Nietzel.
"I've seen places I never would have seen." Howard said his hikes have
also taken him to places he would have never visited otherwise. "It's
seeing America in the different light, he said. "It's bald eagles flying
overhead and big horn sheep on the side of a mountain. It's all those