SANTA FE, N.M. — Two separate groups of intrepid treasure-hunters came within 500 feet of Forrest Fenn’s famed bounty, the author of “The Thrill of the Chase” told a packed crowd at Collected Works Bookstore on Wednesday.
“They interpreted the first two clues correctly but walked by it,” he said. “The clues are difficult and I designed it that way.”
The art and antiques dealer offered few hints about the whereabouts of the 42-pound cast bronze chest filled with gold, precious jewels and pre-Columbian objects he says he hid “somewhere in the Rocky Mountains north of Santa Fe.”
He hid the ancient box about three years ago, but the quest has since become a national sensation, with the author appearing on both “The Today Show” and “Good Morning America,” resulting in an avalanche of sales. In February, the “Today Show” appearance produced sales of 25-30 books per minute, according to Collected Works co-owner Mary Wolf. Some 16,000 emails have bombarded Fenn’s computer.
“I got some hate mail,” Fenn said. “I got a stalker at my house. A neighbor called and said, ‘There’s two guys digging up my yard.’ ”
Fellow mystery writers Michael McGarrity and Doug Preston provided verbal jousting at Wednesday’s event, interviewing Fenn from a corner stage inside the local bookstore as a spring snowfall fell, then evaporated on the Water Street sidewalk outside.
Collected Works owner Dorothy Massey set up 130 chairs – “all the chairs we have,” she said.
“We can take standing room of another 200.” And they did.
When Fenn asked how many in the audience had looked or were actively looking for the treasure, from 12 to 15 hands shot up.
“I don’t get a piece of the money,” he insisted of his book sales, “- not even the publishing. I didn’t want anyone to think the book was a hoax.”
He said he had given all the books to Collected Works. Wolf said 10 percent of the proceeds would be set aside for an unnamed cancer patient’s expenses. A panel of oncologists will decide who needs the funding the most, she added. So far, the store has sold 20,000 copies at $35 per volume.
The author also wanted to encourage kids to leave the video screen for the mountains.
Fenn said there is a sequel in the works, more memoir than mystery, called “Too Far To Walk,” due out sometime this summer.
The author cracked wise and offered elliptical answers to persistent seekers. Asked if the treasure was located in New Mexico and whether he had included a GPS device, he said, “I do not want to answer any of these questions. But I know it’s still hidden.”
The chest includes his favorite bracelet, which features 22 turquoise beads found by the discoverer of Mesa Verde National Park, as well as a 2,000-year-old fetish necklace. He said he won the bracelet playing pool with Bryon Harvey, Fred Harvey’s grandson.
“It’s the only bracelet I had that fit me perfectly,” he said.
He says he’ll buy back the bracelet from whoever finds it, adding his ideal winner would be “every redneck in Texas who’s lost his job, with a wife and kids and has a sense of adventure.”
A 1988 cancer diagnosis kindled the author’s desire to compile the cache. Doctors gave him a 20 percent chance of survival and he wanted to be buried with the treasure.
“Of course, I ruined the story because I didn’t die,” he said with a laugh.
He insists he is the only person who knows the secret location. “The Mafia has a saying that if two people keep a secret, one of them is dead,” he deadpanned.
Reader Kay Grotbeck drove from Cochiti Lake for the event. “I read the whole book,” she said. “I like history, and it was so funny.”
“I don’t think I’ll find it,” she added of the treasure. “I’m not looking that hard.”
Richard Kollen drove up from Albuquerque. “I’ve been out looking for the treasure for a couple of months now,” he said.
A hiker, Kollen said he had searched in Red River, Eagle Nest, Angel Fire, north of Santa Fe and Los Alamos.
“I guess I have as good a chance as anyone,” he said.
If he finds the treasure, he says he’ll divide the loot among friends who need help, then send the box to the Smithsonian Institution.
“I don’t need it all.”