An Infamous Buried Treasure Was Discovered in the Rocky Mountains

A map of the Rocky Mountains from 1932 (via Wikimedia Commons)

Treasure-hunters around the world despair (and their loving families breathe a sigh of relief) as one of the longest-standing contemporary treasure hunts came to a close on June 6, with the announcement that the elusive buried chest of Forrest Fenn has finally been located.

The treasure is a 20-pound bronze chest, alleged to contain some additional 20 pounds of gold nuggets, coins, gemstones, pre-Columbian artifacts, and other items. This hoard was buried by Fenn — a former US Air Force pilot-turned-successful antiquities and art dealer — following recovery from a bleak cancer diagnosis in 1988. According to his self-mythology, Fenn had been determined to have the estimated $2 million worth of valuables interred with his body, but having recovered from cancer, decided instead to bury it somewhere in the Rocky Mountains and hint at its location in an open call to treasure-seekers included in his now legendary 2010 memoir, The Thrill of the Chase.

“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,” reads a statement on Fenn’s website, which replicates the 24-line poem included in his memoir that triggered the search that has captured imaginations and even claimed a few lives over the last decade. “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. Look for more information and photos in the coming days”

There are those who question the existence of the mysterious treasure, including the families of the five people who died in its pursuit: Randy Bilyeu (2016), Jeff Murphy (2017), Pastor Paris Wallace (2017), Eric Ashby (2017), and Michael Wayne Sexson (2020). Aside from the actual loss of life, numerous among the thousands of treasure hunters have found themselves injured, lost, or otherwise overmatched by the rough Rocky Mountain wilderness that comprised the search area. Police and public officials had petitioned Fenn to put an end to the treasure hunt, citing loss of life and risk to public safety, but Fenn remained steadfast in his position as arbiter of his own personal Westing Game.

“I believe he never hid the treasure,” wrote Randy Bilyeu’s widow, Linda Bilyeu, to Westword. “He needed attention and this is how he got it. Fenn needed more attention, which is why he said the treasure has been found with ‘no proof.’”

Certainly, Fenn has gained much attention from the ongoing publicity surrounding the treasure — and though interest in the treasure has fueled sales of his memoir, the author and art dealer claimed to make no money on the self-published book. Still, in our attention economy, notoriety is at least as valuable as gold, making Finn the King Midas of contemporary treasure hunting. With the discovery of the chest — difficult to corroborate due to the finder’s apparent desire to remain anonymous—  2020 marks the close of either a grand and occasionally fatal search for lost treasure, or a longstanding hoax with lethal consequences. How you choose to view it depends, one supposes, on whether you hunger for cynicism, a dash of old-fashioned adventure, or simply the promise of shiny, shiny lucre.