Copyright © 2020 Albuquerque Journal
SANTA FE – Santa Fe art and artifact dealer and author Forrest Fenn – whose 2010 memoir “The Thrill of the Chase” set off a massive treasure hunt – died Monday.
He was 90 and is survived by his wife of 66 years, Peggy, and daughters Zoe and Kelly.
Fenn’s death, apparently from natural causes, came three months after he revealed that the decadelong search for his treasure, hidden “in the mountains somewhere north of Santa Fe,” was over. He said a man from “back East” had found the treasure using clues Fenn provided in a 24-line poem published in his memoir to guide people to its location.
An estimated 350,000 people participated in the hunt. The identity of the man who found the treasure hasn’t been disclosed, though in July Fenn confirmed that the treasure was found in the state of Wyoming. Its value has been estimated as high as $2 million.
Fenn said that the treasure had been hidden in a spot special to him, reportedly a spot he considered using as his final resting place.
“I have no desire to be buried in a box,” he said during a 2013 talk at the Moby Dickens Book Shop in Taos. “It’s too dark and cold for me, and too lasting. I would rather go into the silent mountains on a warm sunny day, sit under a tree where the air is fresh and the smell of nature is all around, and let my body slowly decay into the soil. What can be better than that?”
Fenn died at his home on Old Santa Fe Trail in Santa Fe, according to Santa Fe police, who were called there shortly before 4 p.m. Monday in response to a report of an unattended death. Police said that it appears Fenn died from natural causes and that foul play is not suspected.
Fenn’s grandson, Shiloh Old, said Tuesday that the family was grieving their loss and would release a statement in a few days.
Born in Temple, Texas, on Aug. 22, 1930, Fenn graduated from high school there and attended Temple Junior College before enlisting in the Air Force in 1950.
Fenn completed jet fighter and helicopter training, and eventually became an instructor. He flew missions during the Cuban Missile Crisis and Vietnam War. He piloted 328 combat missions in Vietnam during the span of a year and was shot down twice. He earned the Silver Star and retired at the rank of major.
In 1972, Fenn and Rex Arrowsmith opened the Arrowsmith-Fenn Gallery on Paseo de Peralta in Santa Fe, which later became the Fenn Galleries, selling Native American artifacts, paintings and bronze sculptures.
“My wife and I, and two young daughters slept on the floor while we plastered the walls in our new gallery,” he wrote in a post on the website for his business, the Santa Fe Trading Company, in July 2019. “One problem was that more than half my life had been spent flying fighters in the Air Force. I was an artistic lowbrow with no college and no business acumen. Art was an entirely new focus and I didn’t even own a painting.”
But Fenn figured it out and the business prospered. He sold the gallery in 1988, the same year he was diagnosed with cancer.
Fenn’s cancer diagnosis is what inspired the idea to devise a treasure hunt that would get people to go outdoors. But it wasn’t until years later, after he beat the cancer, that he collected gold coins, jewelry and other artifacts, placed them in a treasure chest and hid it someplace in Wyoming.
In “The Thrill of the Chase,” a book consisting of short stories about his life, Fenn penned a poem embedded with clues intended to guide treasure hunters to the place where it was located. In June, Fenn announced that the treasure had been found.
Ten days later, Fenn released pictures of him sorting through the contents of a treasure chest. He said then that he had made a promise he would not release the location of the treasure nor the identity of the person who found it, leaving those details up to the finder. The man who found the treasure has not publicly identified himself.
The treasure hunt made national news, and was highlighted during numerous television shows and news programs. The book and the attention it received inspired thousands of people to embark on a treasure hunt that lasted 10 years.
Fenn wrote two other memoirs: “Too Far to Walk” in 2013 and “Once Upon a While” in 2017, as well as several other books about art and one about the San Lazaro Pueblo, located on property he owns in Santa Fe County.
Fenn’s life was not without controversy. The FBI once raided his Santa Fe home as part of an investigation into the looting of Indian artifacts. No charges were filed.
In addition, at least four people died while searching for the treasure, prompting critics to implore Fenn to end the search, including then-New Mexico State Police Chief Pete Kassetas, who called the hunt “stupid.”
But many people found Fenn’s treasure hunt fun and fascinating.
Dal Neitzel, who hosts a popular blog about the treasure hunt, said in an email that Fenn accomplished his goal of getting people to explore the great outdoors.
“Forrest and his joy for living was a motivational force for tens of thousands of folks on all sides of the planet who chased his treasure, fished his streams and hiked his trails,” he said. “His absence leaves a large empty space in the Rocky Mountains north of Santa Fe.”
Neitzel’s website, dalneitzel.com, was filled with consolatory messages after the news of Fenn’s death broke.
“We’ve lost our hero. My deepest condolences to Peggy, Kelly, Zoe, and the rest of the family. So sad,” one person wrote.
“RIP truly a life well lived,” wrote another.
“The thrill of the chase kept so many of us engaged, but the end of the ride has left so many of us still yearning for the good old days. We will all be ever so grateful, and will always have our photos and memories.”
For several years, treasure hunters held an annual “Fennboree” celebration at Hyde State Park in Santa Fe, but this year’s event was postponed due to the COVID-19 outbreak. Similar events bringing Fenn treasure hunters together to discuss clues and share their experiences were held elsewhere.
In the days before his death, Fenn fans gathered in West Yellowstone, Montana, for a treasure hunter get-together billed as “The Last Roundup.” More than 80 people attended, with a few dozen more joining via Facebook.
A man who identifies himself as Eric M. of Boise, Idaho, wrote about it on his blog, Nomadic Madman: “As the sun set behind the western mountains, the days events came to an end; I sensed that it was a strange occurrence, that so many people, from so many places, would come together to celebrate something so rare as the ‘Thrill of the Chase.’ ”