For years, treasure hunters have searched the Rocky Mountains for a million-dollar treasure said to have been placed in the vastness by New Mexican author and artifact collector Forrest Fenn. On June 6, Fenn announced the treasure was found, and now, legal questions bubble up regarding claims to the hoard.
Fenn, a self-taught archaeologist, Vietnam fighter pilot and millionaire, claimed that he placed a bronze chest filled with gold and precious gems in the wild unknown wilderness of the Rocky Mountains.
The treasure was described as an ornate 10-by-10-inch box weighing approximately 40 pounds. The only clues that Fenn provided were sparse — its location was in the Rockies, somewhere between Canada and Santa Fe, between 5,000 to 10,000 ft. in elevation, not in a mine, structure or graveyard, and he provided directions in the form of a poem in his self-published autobiography.
According to a Fenn treasure fan blog, dalneitzel.com, the treasure itself contains approximately $1 million worth of treasures, and Fenn paid $25,000 just for the chest. The website also warns that stories and tales of the treasure have grown in time, as have clues, theories and conjecture.
According to the Santa Fe New Mexican, approximately 350,000 people hunted for the treasure, and some had quit jobs to search — sometimes with fatal results. At minimum, five people have died on the quest for a box loaded with gold hidden in the wide expanse of the Rockies. In the decade since the chest was said to be hidden, many have called for Fenn to end the search to prevent others from getting hurt in their search.
With its discovery, a plethora of legal questions and lawsuits have already arisen, both past and present, surrounding the treasure.
A Chicago real estate attorney, Barbara Anderson, is filing an injunction in federal district court “alleging she solved the puzzle but was hacked by someone she doesn’t know,” according to the New Mexican. The injunction requests that the chest be given to Anderson, and that the “unknown defendant” kept from selling the treasure in the chest, according to the publication.
Last year, a Colorado Springs man, David Hanson sued Fenn for over a million dollars alleging that Fenn had given fraudulent statements and misleading clues to the treasure and he was thus deprived of the treasure. The case was thrown out by a judge in February who cited mishandled procedure for serving Fenn with the suit, but Hanson has supposedly petitioned the court for the case to be reopened, according to the New Mexican.
Yet another treasure hunter, Brian Erskine of Arizona, filed a complaint in district court saying he solved the mystery. He alleged the site in question is along the highway between Silverton and Ouray in southwestern Colorado. Erskine told the New Mexican that Fenn was served with the lawsuit, and then shortly after, the press release came out about the treasure being found.
A section of the treasure blog is dedicated solely to “legal ponderings” about the treasure. It explains that a commenter on the blog raised some legal points the website owner thought were notable. One point raised by the user “Mapsmith” was that Fenn left the box that is in no way from the Rockies in any way of time, history or culture, and there is no way the Bureau of Land Management could claim it was “already there.”
The poster argued that the treasure was Fenn’s personal property, and similar to a lost watch. Someone could pick it up, and the poem was a flyer asking for help finding it. Fenn “said there’s a reward for return of 1 [sic] bracelet in the trove: If he decides to reward me (with a box of gold) for finding his bracelet, that’s not illegal.”
“He chose to put wording in the poem that legally declares the gold a trove and grants title transfer,” the blog reads, this different title could help protect legal rights, like mine stakes from bygone days.
The official announcement of the treasure’s discovery appeared as a message on Fenn’s website, the Old Santa Fe Trading Company. “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,” the Fenn wrote. “I do not know the person who found it, but the poem in my book led him to the precise spot.”
Fenn congratulated those who had participated in the search, and “they will continue to be drawn by the promise of other discoveries,” and said to look for further information and photos in days to come.
He did not divulge what was in the treasure or where it was at. He did state that the finder was from the East and had confirmed the location with a photograph. Fenn shared photos of the chest last Tuesday.
With the controversy, obsession and danger in Fenn’s treasure, 1941 treasure hunt mystery “The Maltese Falcon” might offer some insight: The end of the film reveals that the fabulous treasure the characters have been searching for is not what it seems. Maybe it’s not about the obtaining of what you want, but the searching and discovery. In terms of Fenn’s treasure, perhaps Detective Sam Spade said it best —
“It’s the stuff that dreams are made of.”
— Avery Martinez