In search of El Dorado
One evening many years ago, art collector, author, and retired Santa Fe gallery owner Forrest Fenn shared dinner with former Texas governor John Connally (who also served as secretary of the Navy under John F. Kennedy and secretary of the treasury under Richard Nixon) and John Ehrlichman, assistant to the president for domestic affairs under Nixon and a major player in the Watergate scandal. During the meal, Ehrlichman turned to Fenn and Connally and said, “You know, I’ve never seen either of you actually do anything, but you sure know how to get it done.”
Fenn described the encounter during a recent interview with Pasatiempo in connection with the release of his eighth book, The Thrill of the Chase: A Memoir (published by One Horse Land & Cattle Co.). Connally’s comment was meant as a compliment, but Fenn — having received similar compliments throughout his life — was initially unable to accept it. He writes of another occasion, in which his father visited his Santa Fe gallery and witnessed a deal he made with some clients. “When the men left, he went over to my desk and looked at the paperwork. After studying it for a minute he said, ‘Son, you’ve made more money in the last 15 minutes than my home cost, and it took me 20 years to pay for it.’ It was a melancholy recollection that suddenly made me feel totally inadequate. When he said that he was proud of me, it didn’t seem to help.”
The book finds Fenn waist-deep in the exploration of memories such as these, recalling his childhood, military career, and years in New Mexico in pursuit of — well, consider the title of the book and, at the request of the author, draw your own conclusions. There is one certainty, however, about the title’s meaning: somewhere in Northern New Mexico, a bronze chest filled with gold, jewels, and other treasures buried by Fenn is waiting to be unearthed. The book contains the clues needed to find it.
Fenn is a man of many faces and reputations. He has been considered an art-world success and outlaw — and part-time pariah, due to his “avocational” archaeology — since his Santa Fe gallery opened on Paseo de Peralta in the early 1970s. In a 1986 article in People magazine, reporter Brenda Eady wrote of Fenn: “One of his most prized acquisitions is a 36-inch alligator, Beowulf, who inhabits a pond on the gallery grounds. In artsy Santa Fe, riddled with some 110 galleries, lots of folks think they detect a resemblance between Beowulf and his owner.” His bark is worse than his bite these days, and Fenn, now in his 80s, will be the first to tell you that barking is all just part of the game. In the People interview he is quoted as saying, “I have always thought of myself as one who plays Monopoly. That’s what I’m doing here.”
Forrest Fenn, age 16, and his rented horse, Lightning, circa 1940s; photo courtesy Forrest Fenn