Just months after revealing that an intrepid explorer had finally solved the 10-year-old treasure hunt he plotted, New Mexico art and antiquities dealer Forrest Fenn has died. He was 90 years old.
Fenn filled his 12th-century bronze treasure chest with golden nuggets, gemstones, and pre-Columbian antiquities from his personal collection. Together, the box and its contents were said to be worth $2 million.
To announce the hunt, Fenn included a cryptic 24-line poem with clues to its location in , his self-published 2010 memoir. He claimed the goal was to get people off their couches in search of adventure.
“He loved families, and he loved the idea of getting them out in the mountains and the open air, and his great joy was talking to the families that were seeking the treasure,” Dorothy Massey, a Santa Fe bookstore owner and close friend of Fenn’s, told the .
Fenn was born in Temple, Texas, on August 22, 1930. He caught the collecting bug at age nine, when he found his first arrowhead in a Texas field. In the Vietnam War, he flew 328 combat missions as an Air Force combat pilot, and was shot down twice.
As an art dealer in Santa Fe from 1972 to 1988, Fenn counted Gerald R. Ford, Jacqueline Kennedy Onassis, Michael Douglas, Robert Redford, Cher, Andy Williams, and Steve Martin among his clients.
But not everyone was impressed with his habit of openly selling fake Impressionist masterpieces by master forger Elmyr de Hory for thousands of dollars, as reported by .
He also knew nothing about art. “I was an artistic lowbrow with no college and no business acumen,” Fenn wrote on his blog last year. “Fortunately, we happened to be in the right place at the right time with the right product. And I say product because to me an artist was a manufacturer and the painting she produced was little more than a commodity.”
Fenn was inspired to hide the riches after recovering from a bout of kidney cancer, making the hike himself to secret the 40-pound treasure chest in an undisclosed location in the Rocky Mountains. Some 300,000 estimated treasure hunters took up the challenge over the years, according to Fenn—some even quitting their jobs to dedicate their lives to the quest.
But the treasure hunt also led to tragedy. Five people are believed to have died in pursuit of the golden hoard before the hunt came to an end in June. Despite skeptics who believed the entire hunt was a hoax, Fenn announced that an anonymous man had tracked it down somewhere in Wyoming.