A treasure hunter recently died near the Rio Grande in New Mexico. His body turned up in the backcountry after he was reported missing. This is the second death of a treasure hunter looking for an ornate bronze chest said to be hidden somewhere between Santa Fe and Canada by multi-millionaire artifact collector Forrest Fenn. The chest is filled with what Fenn estimates to be $2 million in gold coins, nuggets, and small pre-Columbian artifacts. With clues limited to a poem Fenn wrote, and a geographic specificity of 5,000 feet in elevation, it’s a wonder more have not died in the last couple of years in search of it.
A few years before he announced the treasure hunt in 2010, I saw this chest with my own eyes. I was interviewing Fenn in his Santa Fe home about his collection of pre-Columbian artifacts. He led me into a vault with a thick steel door where he showed me a dazzling array of ancient materials. On a work table was this 22-pound chest of Romanesque design, something you could lift with two hands. It brimmed with gold artifacts and coins. He told me of his plans to hide it and spark a hunt, saying that the chest alone is worth $24,000.
Fenn is an odd and articulate man, an older fellow with a goblin-like sense of fascination. Eccentric would be the word. He showed me a number of ornate bronze canisters he had cast, planning to bury them around the world with his memoirs sealed inside. He said he wanted someone digging up his story. One of the bronzes is a bell on which he inscribed, “If you should ever think of me a thousand years from now, please ring my bell so I will know.” The tongue of the bell, he pointed out, came from the tongue of a 17th-century Spanish Mission bell, like sprinkling magic dust inside the object.
Fenn is interested in longevity. Not of his body necessarily, but the story of him, what will last long after his skins. Hiding this treasure chest makes sure his story goes on even farther. He is depending on human craving to get him there. He is 86 years old, but the artifacts he’s toying with go back thousands of years. Though I have no doubt the treasure is really out there, he is also a sort of trickster. He likes to throw out a scenario and watch what people do.
For instance, after he took me into his vault to look at artifacts, Fenn said he had to step out for a moment. I believed he was stepping out for a lemonade or to use the bathroom. In hindsight, I imagine he went to a video feed to see how I would react to being left alone in a room with millions of dollars of gold, much of it in small, easy-to-pocket trinkets. Suspecting nothing, I wondered why he would leave a person in the vault when he’d only met me today. The chest was alluring, but it was still only a chest full of rare and shaped metal. I touched nothing. I turned to another work table where I found a Mayan funerary mask made of pieces of jade secured into the shape of a face, eyes white with black jet pupils. This was something that interested me.
The mask was easily within reach and I stared at it. I had seen other similar masks made of hundreds of small jade tiles into a person’s face, only they had been behind museum glass. This one I could have picked up in my hands. I could have placed it on my own face, which was the first idea that came to me, but seemed like a bad thing to do. I can’t say I’m superstitious, but I didn’t want to press my luck. Mayan kings were buried wearing masks like this.
When Fenn returned to the vault I was still staring at the thing. “Try it on if you want,” he said. I demurred, saying no thank you. Fen shrugged. “I don’t especially like it. I got it about five years ago so I could trade it for something I really want to play with.”
Speaking of things he really wanted to play with, he showed me Sitting Bull’s pipe, which appeared in photographs of the Hunkpapa Lakota holy man in the 1880s. Fenn said, “This is arguably one of the most important American Indian artifacts in existence. There’s no way it isn’t the original pipe. It’s exact. I even measured the concavities in the bowl itself. The ratios are perfect.”
His life struck me as nothing but treasure. Fenn was touched with a lifelong mania, every object he held had to tell a story. Not only the vault, but his house is full of artifacts. It feels like a museum.
When my gaze fell back on the treasure chest, I told him I could hide it for him. I could put it someplace where people wouldn’t find it for centuries. But Fenn didn’t want it to be so hard. He wanted to hide it himself. He wanted it to be found. But more than anything, he wanted it looked for. He was throwing a piece of meat into the alligator pit to watch everyone jump for it. He wanted lives changed and courses altered by the movement of his hand. That’s the trickster in him.
I don’t think much of that treasure out there, though I hear that tens of thousands of people are thinking a lot about it, some dying to find it. I still think Fenn should have let me hide it. It would be found so far in the future that Fenn’s name would be gone. It would be a mystery dug from the ground. The lid opened for the first time in centuries, in thousands of years, could be exactly what Fenn was after. Somewhere in space and time, he would know.
Image: “Death Mask,” 2003 oil painting by Maya Kulenovic.