Forrest Fenn, author and artifacts dealer who created famed treasure hunt for $3 million chest full of gold, dies aged 90
- Forrest Fenn, who led thousands on a chase for hidden treasure, died on Monday
- Police say he died of natural causes at his home in Santa Fe, aged 90
- Fenn was a hero combat pilot for the Air Force in the Vietnam War
- In 2010, he published clues to a treasure chest he said was hidden in the Rockies
- Some 350,000 joined in the hunt, leading to five tragic deaths in the wilderness
- Some questioned whether the treasure was real, even after he said it was found
- But Fenn insisted in multiple interviews with DailyMail.com the treasure was real
Forrest Fenn, the author and artifacts dealer who led thousands of treasure hunters on a chase for a $3 million chest of gold in the Rocky Mountains, has died. He was 90.
For 10 years, thousands of thrill seekers followed the clues left in a poem he published in 2010, seeking the chest full of gold he said that he had stowed somewhere in the Rocky Mountains.
In June of this year, he claimed that the treasure had been found in Wyoming, but refused to reveal exactly where it had been hidden, saying he had promised the lucky winner he would keep it a secret.
Forrest Fenn, the author and artifacts dealer who led thousands of treasure hunters on a chase for a $3 million chest of gold in the Rocky Mountains, has died
Fenn (pictured with the treasure in June) claimed that the treasure had been found in Wyoming, but did not say where. The identity of the person who found it was not revealed
A native of Waco, Texas, Fenn said that his love of antiquities began at the age of nine, when he found an arrowhead in a freshly plowed field.
Fenn served as an Air Force combat pilot in the Vietnam War, attaining the rank of major.
He was decorated with the Silver Star for gallantry in action after he was wounded by enemy fire in April 1968, and with the Distinguished Flying Cross with Bronze Oak Leaf Cluster for heroism and extraordinary achievement on two missions in the fall of 1968.
In total, he flew 328 combat missions in 365 days in Vietnam.
Following his military service, Fenn opened the Arrowsmith-Fenn Gallery in Santa Fe with his partner Rex Arrowsmith. It later became the Fenn Galleries, which he operated with his wife Peggy.
The gallery specialized in American Indian artifacts, paintings, bronze sculptures, and other art, including openly selling forged copies of works by Modigliani, Monet and Degas.
Though he was sometimes scorned by competitors in Santa Fe’s bustling gallery scene, Fenn’s gallery reportedly grossed $6 million a year.
Fenn is seen as a young man. He said that his love of antiquities began at the age of nine, when he found an arrowhead in a freshly plowed field
Fenn served as an Air Force pilot in the Vietnam War, attaining the rank of major. He was decorated with the Silver Star and Distinguished Flying Cross with Bronze Oak Leaf Cluster
Following his military service, Fenn opened the Arrowsmith-Fenn Gallery in Santa Fe, dealing American Indian artifacts, paintings, bronze sculptures, and other art
In 1988, Fenn was diagnosed with cancer and given a prognosis that it was likely terminal.
After he recovered, Fenn said he was inspired to create a treasure hunt, publishing the clues in a 2010 collection of short stories about his life, titled The Thrill Of The Chase: A Memoir.
He said that the book contained clues as to the treasure’s location throughout, and that in particular, a poem in the book had nine clues that would lead to its location.
‘I had several motives,’ Fenn told DailyMail.com in 2018 in an interview at his New Mexico estate. ‘First of all, we were going into a recession – lots of people losing their jobs. I wanted to give some people hope. Despair was written all over the newspaper headlines.
‘And secondly, we’re an overweight society – I think not only in this country, but the world,’ said Fenn. ‘So I wanted to get the kids away from their electronic gadgets … and out into the sunshine, out into the mountains, hiking, fishing, picnicking – and anything but the couch. Get out of the game room.’
Author Forrest Fenn poses for a portrait in his home in Santa Fe, New Mexico on June 24, 2018
An undated photo of the bronze chest, gold coins and other antiques making up the treasure
Fenn shared this image of the treasure chest from when it was supposedly found in June
At one point, as many 350,000 people were believed to have looked for the treasure in the Western United States.
But the search had a dark side, leading to the deaths of at least five people who perished in the wilderness while seeking the hidden booty.
Linda Bilyeu, whose ex-husband, Randy Bilyeu, died in the New Mexico wilderness in January 2016 during the search, accused Fenn of perpetrating a hoax, saying that there never was a treasure.
‘He needed attention and this is how he got it,’ she told Westworld after Fenn announced the treasure had been found. ‘Fenn needed more attention, which is why he said the treasure has been found with ‘no proof.”
Fenn insisted, including in multiple interviews with DailyMail.com through the years, that the treasure was real and remained where he’d hidden in 2010 until it was discovered this June.
Fenn said repeatedly the 40-pound treasure chest was not hidden anywhere dangerous or inaccessible, and was somewhere that a 79-year-old man could carry it on his own.
But plenty of searchers who took Fenn at his word that he indeed hid a treasure nonetheless forgot, disregarded or didn’t hear about his promise about accessibility.
Some questioned whether the entire treasure hunt was a hoax — but Fenn always insisted that it was real, and that the treasure was buried for 10 years until it was found in June
During the search for Randy Bilyeau in 2016 – the U.S. Army Corps of Engineers found his remains along the Rio Grande River in northern New Mexico – his relatives and New Mexico State Police pleaded for Fenn to call off the hunt.
Fenn refused, saying that would be unfair to those who spent time and money looking for the chest.
National park officials and rescuers expressed relief when Fenn said in June that the treasure had been found.
‘It was under a canopy of stars in the lush, forested vegetation of the Rocky Mountains and had not moved from the spot where I hid it more than 10 years ago,’ Fenn said in a statement on his Old Santa Fe Trading Co. website.
‘I do not know the person who found it, but the poem in my book led him to the precise spot. I congratulate the thousands of people who participated in the search and hope they will continue to be drawn by the promise of other discoveries. So the search is over,’ he added.
With his death, the secret of the treasure’s location — and whether it ever even existed — may be buried with him.
The treasure seekers who died while hunting Fenn’s bounty
At least five people have died while searching for the treasure. Police officials had publicly implored Fenn to end the treasure hunt, saying it was a danger to public safety.
Sexson, 53, from Deer Park, and his companion, an unnamed 65-year-old man from Thornton, had set out in March this year to look for the riches in a remote section of Dinosaur National Monument – the same area where the pair of adventurers had gotten trapped in the snow in late February and had to be rescued.
On this occasion, by the time rescuers tracked down the two treasure hunters, who had been reported missing four days earlier, Sexson had died. His companion, who was said to be wearing more weather-appropriate gear, survived the ordeal and was airlifted to safety.
Randy Bilyeu, pictured, was found dead in the wilderness west of Santa Fe
Bilyeu went missing in January 2016 and was found dead in July.
His body was discovered by workers along the Rio Grande, and an autopsy could not determine cause of death.
Bilyeu’s ex-wife has publicly stated her belief that the Fenn Treasure is a hoax.
Sexson, 53, from Deer Park, and his companion, an unnamed 65-year-old man from Thornton, had set out in March 2020 to look for the riches in a remote section of Dinosaur National Monument.
By the time rescuers tracked down the two treasure hunters, who had been reported missing four days earlier, Sexson had died. His companion, who was said to be wearing more weather-appropriate gear, survived the ordeal and was airlifted to safety.
Jeff Murphy, 53, was found dead in Yellowstone National Park
Murphy, 53, of Batavia, Illinois was found dead in Yellowstone National Park on June 9, 2017 after falling about 500 feet down a steep slope.
The investigation by Yellowstone officials into Murphy’s death was kept private, but KULR-TV obtained it through a Freedom of Information Act request in February 2018.
The investigative report reveals Murphy’s wife told park authorities that Murphy was looking for the treasure when she called to report him missing.
Pastor Paris Wallace
Wallace, of Grand Junction, Colorado, told family members that he was searching for a buried treasure, but he failed to show up for a planned family meeting on June 14, 2017.
His car was found parked near the Taos Junction Bridge and his body was found 5 to 7 miles downstream along the Rio Grande.
Eric Ashby, 31, was found dead in Colorado’s Arkansas River
Ashby, 31, was found dead in Colorado’s Arkansas River on July 28, 2017.
Friends and family state that he had moved to Colorado in 2016 to look for the treasure, and was last seen on June 28 rafting on the river 10 to 15 miles upstream from where his body was found. The raft overturned, and Ashby had been missing since that time.