Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.
Pop culture obsessives writing for the pop culture obsessed.

2020 can’t be all bad if someone found an actual buried treasure

Illustration for article titled 2020 can’t be all bad if someone found an actual buried treasure
Photo: DanBrandenburg/E+ (iStock by Getty Images)

We explore some of Wikipedia’s oddities in our 6,125,173-week series, Wiki Wormhole.


This week’s entry: Fenn Treasure

What it’s about: Buried treasure! Honest-to-goodness 21st-century buried treasure! At some point in the ’90s or early ’00s, New Mexico art dealer Forrest Fenn buried a treasure chest in the mountains north of Santa Fe, then self-published a memoir in 2010 full of clues. Earlier this year, an unnamed man found the treasure, worth an estimated $2 million.

Biggest controversy: It’s possible some of Fenn’s treasure was ill-gotten. In 2009, before he announced the treasure hunt but presumably after he hid the treasure, his home was raided by the FBI, in connection with suspected artifact looting. Wikipedia lists artifacts they found in Fenn’s possession—chainmail from Pecos National Historical Park, a feathered talisman, a bison skull, and human hair (Wikipedia does not elaborate or explain whose)—the article says “some of which” was confiscated by the FBI, not which ones. Two other suspects in the same investigation committed suicide, and Fenn publicly blamed the FBI for their deaths.

Strangest fact: Along with Native American artifacts of questionable provenance, Fenn’s art gallery sold European-style sculptures and paintings, including forgeries of Modigliani, Monet, and Degas, among others. (Another moment when we could use more explanation or clarity from Wikipedia—there’s no mention of repercussions for these forgeries, so we assume they were sold as copies, and Fenn didn’t try passing them off as the originals, but again, the article doesn’t make that clear.) The gallery took in $6 million a year, which helps explain how Fenn was able to get a treasure together to bury in the first place.

Thing we were happiest to learn: Fenn is still alive to see his treasure found. He was inspired to hide the treasure in the first place after his 1988 cancer diagnosis. Fenn’s prognosis was grim, and he decided to leave a treasure and public treasure hunt as his legacy, intending to be buried at the treasure spot as well. But he beat the odds and recovered, writing his clue-filled book, The Thrill Of The Chase: A Memoir after going into remission. The book is a collection of anecdotes about his life, and a poem that contains nine clues that lead to the chest. In the book, he described the treasure as including “gold nuggets, rare coins, jewelry, and gemstones.”

Thing we were unhappiest to learn: Treasure hunting is dangerous business. Five people have died looking for the Fenn treasure. Two hunters, a year apart, went missing looking for the treasure and were found washed up along the Rio Grande; one searcher fell down a steep slope in Yellowstone National Park; another drowned after their raft overturned on the Colorado River. A fifth searcher’s entry is confusingly worded—he and a friend seem to have been rescued twice in the span of a month in Colorado, and he died while the friend survived.


Other treasure hunters survived the search but still got into trouble. Treasure hunters have gotten in trouble for digging beneath a descanso roadside monument and in Yellowstone and Heron Lake State Park. In 2018, Robert Miller broke into Fenn’s house and was caught stealing a chest he thought contained the treasure; another man sued Fenn for fraud to no avail. A 2020 searcher attempted to rappel down the Grand Canyon en route to where he thought the treasure was—he spent a week in jail, was banned from Yellowstone for five years, and had to pay $4,000 in rescue costs. Even at his sentencing, he was convinced he was on the right track, even though Fenn had written that no climbing was required to find the treasure.

Best link to elsewhere on Wikipedia: Wikipedia has a category for Treasure of the United States, most of which, unlike Fenn’s Treasure, are merely fables. Stashes of Confederate gold, the legend of Montezuma’s treasure (“There is not the slimmest thread of reality in this story…”), the Lost Dutchman’s Gold Mine, and the Skeleton Canyon treasure have all captured the imaginations of generations of treasure hunters and tellers of tall tales alike.


Further Down the Wormhole: Before getting into the art dealing and treasure hiding games, Forrest Fenn was an U.S. Air Force Major, who once flew 328 combat missions in 365 days, and was awarded the Silver Star. There’s a list of air forces nearly as long as the list of countries in the world, including a country that’s only barely recognized as a country. We’ll visit Transnistria, a breakaway Soviet republic of fewer than half a million people that still hasn’t fully broken away from Moldova, next week.

Host of the podcast Why Is This Not a Movie? His sixth book, The Planets Are Very, Very, Very Far Away is due in fall 2021. He tells people he lives in New York, but he really lives in New Jersey.