In search of El Do­rado

Pasatiempo - - In Search Of El Dorado - Rob DeWalt The New Mex­i­can

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

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