Gold coins
Included in the estimates were the 265 gold coins of varying types, the gold nuggets and dust, the golden frogs, the golden mirrors, the gold nose rings, the gold necklace—gold, gold, gold. (Photo: brightstars/iStock)

I Got to See Forrest Fenn’s Treasure with My Own Eyes

In an excerpt from his book ‘Chasing the Thrill: Obsession, Death, and Glory in America’s Most Extraordinary Treasure Hunt,’ journalist and searcher Daniel Barbarisi recounts how he got to open Fenn’s chest and examine what was inside

Gold coins

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For a decade, Forrest Fenn had lived as creator, promoter, steward, and defender of perhaps the most extraordinary treasure hunt America had ever known. He lived to see its conclusion. And then, barely three months after the hunt he had brought into the world had ended, Fenn was gone.

On the morning of September 7, 2020, Fenn was found unconscious in his study, having fallen, according to the police report. He was taken to Christus St. Vincent Regional Medical Center, then released to the care of his family, who returned him to his home. There he died later that same day, never having regained consciousness. The first responders who arrived on the scene that morning were initially responding to a cardiac-arrest call, indicating Fenn may have had a heart attack that precipitated his fall.

His funeral arrangements were private, and searchers were kept at arm’s length. The family did eventually post a message on Fenn’s website, thanking the search community: “To the many searchers who joined us in the thrill of the chase over the last decade, your stories, emails, and tales of the hunt sparked joy in his life and we are forever grateful for your enthusiasm.” 

The author Doug Preston hadn’t been able to be there for Fenn’s 90th birthday in late August—due to COVID-19, the Fenn family held a car parade for friends to drive by and say hello—but Preston had called soon after and found his friend well.

“Whatever happened to him happened to him pretty quickly. I spoke to him ten days after his birthday, maybe a week,” Preston said. “He sounded great. He didn’t sound like he was in any kind of decline at all. Now, there may have been something going on that I didn’t know about. But his mind was there. He was cheerful. His vigor was still there, in terms of his intellectual capabilities. I did not notice any decline.”

Preston said he could sense a sadness in his friend—a melancholy that the treasure hunt that had defined the final stage of his life had ended.

“He just seemed disappointed that the treasure had been found. A little bit disappointed.”

After Fenn’s death, an outpouring of sadness, grief, and love came from the searcher community, with tributes to Fenn on all the prominent blogs and message boards. Many searchers told stories of their interactions with Fenn, or of what the hunt had meant to them, or just publicly thanked Fenn for what he had brought into their lives.

The hunt was over, and now its architect was gone. The anonymous finder was nowhere to be found, and while that left many—myself included—with countless questions, I thought perhaps this might bring the story of this treasure hunt to a close, at last.

I should have known better.

On September 23, just over two weeks after Fenn died, a post surfaced on the website Medium, a self-publishing platform that allows users to distribute essays and other written works anonymously if they choose. Titled “A Remembrance of Forrest Fenn,” it was written by The Finder, who described himself thusly: “The author is the finder and owner of the Forrest Fenn treasure.”

In 3,000 well-crafted words, the finder penned an ode to Fenn, who he described as his friend.

“I am the person who found Forrest’s famed treasure,” he wrote. “The moment it happened was not the triumphant Hollywood ending some surely envisioned; it just felt like I had just survived something and was fortunate to come out the other end.”

In his essay, the finder revealed a great deal about the circumstances under which he had found the treasure—but crucially, he would not divulge exactly where he had located it, and said he did not plan to. He was also careful not to let any details about his own identity slip, indicating only that he was a millennial and had student loans to pay off. Beyond that, he was an enigma.

After finishing the essay, I no longer had any doubt that there was a finder.

Much else, though, remained unresolved. The finder had teased so many things in his essay, left me and everyone else wanting more. He’d said he’d answer more questions at some point, but I didn’t particularly want to wait, or leave what he answered up to him alone.

So I contacted him.

(Courtesy Knopf Publishing)

Medium doesn’t generally allow readers to contact the author of a piece directly, which is one reason it’s good for anonymous posting. It does allow users to post public comments on a piece, and more than 100 people quickly had, most of them supportive, some of them skeptical, a few of them angry and aggressive. But I wasn’t going to just post my email in the comments where anyone could read it; that left me no guarantee that the person I might end up in contact with would be the finder.

I had one trick up my sleeve, though. There’s a little-known way to send a direct message to the author of a Medium piece: You have to flag a section of text, indicating that it contains an error or a typo. That notifies the author of the piece that something needs to be corrected in his or her work. The system doesn’t give you a lot of space, just enough to describe the problem. So I flagged a section of the essay, barely squeezed in who I was and how to contact me via email, and hoped for the best. I had no guarantee that the finder would look at the message, or that he would understand exactly why he should get in touch. But it was worth a shot.

Less than a day later, an email popped into my inbox. It was from an address whose name referred to Fenn’s treasure. The finder had replied.

He’d heard of my project, he said, and he might be willing to talk to me. But he insisted that we’d have to keep things off the record for now. And so began a month of back-and-forth correspondence, sometimes several emails a day, culminating in my revealing his identity to the world in an Outside article in early December 2020, identifying him as Jack Stuef, a 32-year-old medical student from Michigan.

Having written the Outside article, my inbox was suddenly flooded with searchers claiming this or that about Stuef or that his solve was fraudulent, and asking me to prove it or use my knowledge to validate their own competing solves. I still had no idea where the treasure was, and I truly didn’t want to know, but that didn’t stop searchers from claiming that I was somehow involved in some of these conspiracies. I know we live in a post-truth world now, but even as conspiracies around the 2020 election dominated life outside the hunt, the level of disbelief I encountered within the chase still shocked me. Should I have been so surprised? Conspiracy theories have plagued this hunt from the start. I’d fallen for them myself.

Still, even if there were some details I couldn’t quite square, I remained sure that Stuef was the finder, and that no grand conspiracy was at play here. How could I be so certain? Part of it was confidence in the facts we all did know. Part of it was, as Paris Wallace had said in his fateful, final sermon, understanding that at a certain point “we have to trust.” And part of it was that I had experienced something the other searchers had not. A few months earlier, I had flown to Santa Fe one last time and opened Forrest Fenn’s treasure chest myself.

I tightened my mask as I stepped off the plane, out onto the tarmac at Santa Fe Regional Airport and into the cool air. This trip had come together quickly, out of nowhere, really. One day, back when I still didn’t know who the finder was, he’d sent me a particularly unexpected email, offering something I hadn’t really asked for but had absolutely craved.

“Hey,” it read. “Do you want to come see the treasure?”

I pounced on the offer and got to Santa Fe as fast as I could, thrilled at the chance to be so close to something I’d dreamt about for so long.

As I left my hotel the morning after flying in and made my way toward the finder’s lawyer’s offices, the streets of Santa Fe were barren, devoid of the traffic that normally choked Cerrillos Road. It was October, usually one of the busiest times of the year in Santa Fe. In normal years, October brings Albuquerque’s famed balloon festival, featuring hundreds of hot-air balloons and a carnival atmosphere, and enthusiasts come from around the world to experience it. My trips to see Fenn and the other searchers in 2017 and 2018 had overlapped with the festival, and so I can attest both that it’s great, and that it jams Albuquerque and Santa Fe with tourists.

Not this year, I thought as I cruised down the near empty road, my face mask sitting on the console between the two front seats. But it wasn’t just the pandemic that made Santa Fe feel strangely empty. For me, Fenn’s absence loomed larger than the lack of tourists or people driving to work.

This was the first time since learning of this hunt that I had come to Santa Fe for a reason other than to see Fenn; I still had much I wanted to ask him, and now I’d never get the chance. It was impossible not to think of him as I drove along, passing a restaurant in the Santa Fe Railyard where we’d had lunch, going by the turnoff to get to his gallery. The reality was that I couldn’t imagine Santa Fe without him. For better or worse, he and the city he called home had become synonymous in my mind.

It had been a month now since his death. His wife, Peggy, had herself passed the week before I arrived, living just four weeks beyond her husband. Peggy and Forrest Fenn had been married almost 67 years.

How would Fenn be remembered? He had been so concerned that his father had left no mark, that Marvin Fenn had no imprint on history until his son brought him back via his words and books. Forrest Fenn clearly would not suffer that same fate. His treasure hunt had made a greater impact than Fenn could have ever imagined. Still, his passing so soon after the end of the hunt—a hunt that I believe he’d hoped would outlive him—did end the story of Fenn’s life in the eyes of the outside world. His chapter in history was interesting, compelling, complicated, flawed. A moment in time, an amazing tale. But now over. Fenn had wanted to live on through his treasure hunt, through his chest. With the chest found, I don’t know if he’ll truly do that.

Yet now that I was going to be laying eyes on it, touching it, it moved from the realm of the theoretical to the actual in a hurry.

The chest. Now that I was mere minutes away from actually holding it in my hands, I was brimming with anticipation, feeling that little tremble that comes from adrenaline coursing through my body. Was just seeing it as good as finding the treasure? Well, no, you’re a couple million dollars poorer, but in some ways, I don’t know, maybe it was better. A chance to experience and understand this treasure, without the burden of having to own it. At least that’s what I was telling myself.

What did I really know about it? It was small, deceptively so. Prominent searcher Cynthia Meachum had built a replica and placed it out in the wilderness to underscore how near impossible it would be to identify the chest at distance if you didn’t know precisely where it was. It was ten by ten by five inches, and that’s just not very big. And it was heavy. The chest itself weighed 20 pounds, the contents weighed 22 pounds, and Fenn had needed his famed two trips to get it all to his spot.

There had been a few attempts at chronicling what was in it—some of the best work done by Cynthia’s pal Matt DeMoss. DeMoss’s efforts had been aided by the release of both sets of conference-room pictures, which I now understood had been taken at the finder’s lawyer’s office, the one I was about to visit. Nobody except for Fenn and the finder, however, had been able to really go through the chest, pull everything out, and document the contents—until now. The actual chest, I knew, was the bronze Romanesque lockbox, dating from roughly 1150, with carvings along its sides and top depicting the Castle of Lovea well-known Gothic art motif where maidens sit atop the castle, and knights at the base try to scale it and reach them. It was not locked, but it did include a key, and it was latched with a gargoyle of some sort. There was some type of wood, perhaps oak, serving as a lining.

Based on what he believed to be in the chest, DeMoss had compared each item to similar examples currently on sale and guessed the low-end sale value of all the items inside at $555,487, with the high-end sale value at $1,327,450. Even if we split the difference, chances are it would sell for more than that, because these items are part of the Fenn Treasure, a factor DeMoss said he did not incorporate into his analysis.

Included in his estimates were the 265 gold coins of varying types, the gold nuggets and dust, the golden frogs, the golden mirrors, the gold nose rings, the gold necklace—gold, gold, gold. There was the ancient Tairona/Sinu necklace, the Chinese carved jade faces, the turquoise bracelet that Fenn had wanted to buy back, and Fenn’s 20,000-word autobiography, in addition to a few other, smaller items of note. Then there were the “emeralds, rubies, diamonds” that were often mentioned as being in the chest. Were those merely included in what was perhaps the chest’s most impressive single item, the golden dragon bracelet, which itself contained hundreds of precious stones? Or were there additional jewels to be found beyond that? Nobody knew, except for Fenn, the finder, and whoever had been there when the chest was examined. There could still be curiosities waiting, surprises to be found, answers to be had. Now I was going to be privy to them.

The author with Forrest Fenn's treasure chest in Sante Fe, New Mexico
The author with Forrest Fenn's treasure chest in Sante Fe, New Mexico (Courtesy of Daniel Barbarisi)

I’d agreed to a few conditions when the finder had offered to let me view the chest. First, we’d agreed that I would pay his attorneys’ hourly rates for their time, such that my seeing the chest wouldn’t actually cost the finder money—pretty standard journalistic practice. He’d also stipulated that he didn’t want me to identify his attorneys—there were three representing him, two men and a woman—in any meaningful way, so that they couldn’t be tracked down by overaggressive searchers. I agreed. And then one more: the finder wanted to make sure I didn’t open the vial containing Fenn’s autobiography, which remained sealed, and that if I could read any of what was inside through the glass, I wouldn’t relay any of that information. I agreed to that as well.

The conditions weren’t onerous, and I was eager to make this happen. As far as I knew, examining the chest was not a privilege that had been extended to anyone else—and in that, it was not lost on me that I was getting to do something that others might not like. I hadn’t searched for a few years now, and even if it hadn’t been found, I hadn’t planned on searching again. But still, there were people far more deserving than I who would have killed to see what I was about to see. Even if the finder managed to give the chest some sort of public exhibition at some point, I assumed no one would get to go through it, touch it, experience it the way I was about to. As I parked the car, I could feel a certain weight to what I was about to do, a responsibility to do it all right, whatever that meant. That, and maybe a few pangs of guilt, for getting to enjoy what other, better searchers couldn’t.

I parked near the offices, put on my mask, and walked along the sunny, empty streets toward the front door. There were COVID-related signs posted about not entering without an appointment. I was pretty sure I had one of those—though even at that late moment, there was still the tiniest sliver of doubt in my mind. At the time, I still didn’t know who the finder really was, and hence had flown out here on a tiny plane on the offer of someone whose name I didn’t know, based on a cold-call email and little more than that. I was pretty sure, as close to certain as I could be, that this was the finder and that everything was legit, but until I was actually opening that chest myself, nothing was truly guaranteed.

So it was heartening when I swung open the large, heavy door, went into what seemed to be an impressive professional suite of law offices, gave my name at the front desk, and waited only moments before the finder’s attorney came out and introduced herself.

“We’ll just go right in here,” she said, pointing to a set of doors leading into a conference room, “and then we’ll bring the chest right in.”

That simple, huh?

I pushed open the doors and entered a reasonably sized room with an oblong wooden conference table covered by glass. It was instantly familiar from the two sets of pictures posted to validate the find.

“Is this where you showed Fenn the chest?” I asked.

“It is,” she replied. “He sat right there.” She indicated a chair at one end of the table. “You can sit right where he sat if you want.”

I wasn’t sure if that was a little too fanboyish. But it seemed like a good place to sit anyway, so I threw my backpack down near where she’d gestured. This was perhaps the only time on the hunt when I was absolutely, definitely, unquestionably following in Fenn’s footsteps, instead of puttering around in the wilderness two states away from where he’d left his treasure. Here I was really and truly doing just what he had done, only a few months before, when he’d gone through this chest for the first time in a decade.

From the moment I’d entered this chase, the chest had been the goal. In some ways, it was a MacGuffin, like the Maltese Falcon or the Death Star plans—it was what this chase was about, yes, but it wasn’t really what this chase was about, y’know? Still, it mattered. Up until this moment, the chest had been purely theoretical to me. I’d never expected to find it, so I wasn’t one of those searchers who had already spent the money in it ten times over. For me it was more about figuring out the clues, getting the answer.

Yet now that I was going to be laying eyes on it, touching it, it moved from the realm of the theoretical to the actual in a hurry.

That understanding fundamentally altered my entire view of the chase. It meant that despite whatever else he’d done, Fenn had been telling the truth about this box and what was in it: that he had hidden it somewhere out there, and the finder really and truly had obtained it and was now letting me see and touch it. That most basic set of facts was real, and that gave me a sense of certainty about this chase, of a kind I had never really had until now. Did that improve Fenn’s standing a bit in my mind? It was a complicated question. To this point, I’d managed somewhat to separate the man from the hunt, even though it was hard to do. And knowing that he was telling the truth did mean something for the man, somewhat. It didn’t mean he was without failings, his chase without its problems. But he had done this, just the way he’d said he had. And that, in my mind, counted for something.

I started to ask if they needed me to sign anything before we began, as I stretched on the latex gloves that I’d brought for the examination. Then, just like that, the conference-room door opened and a man walked in bearing a bronze box, ten by ten by five, worn and weathered and perfect. He hurried quickly over to my side of the table as I, in true surprise, stammered something out about not expecting it all to be quite so easy.

He chuckled in reply as he walked up and casually handed me Forrest Fenn’s treasure chest.

Excerpted from Chasing the Thrill: Obsession, Death, and Glory in America’s Most Extraordinary Treasure Hunt, by Daniel Barbarisi. Copyright © 2021 by Daniel Barbarisi. Excerpted by permission of Alfred A. Knopf, a division of Penguin Random House LLC. All rights reserved. No part of this excerpt may be reproduced or reprinted without permission in writing from the publisher.

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