The Search for Forrest Fenn’s Treasure Inspired an Entire Subculture

It's not hard to see the appeal of the search — or the reward

Sunlight Basin
Sunlight Basin drew the attention of some treasure seekers.
Yellowstone National Park

Earlier this year, the treasure hidden away by the Santa Fe-based millionaire and art dealer Forrest Fenn was found. The search for the treasure, which involved parsing out clues from a poem Fenn had written, had inspired a tremendous number of DIY fortune hunters, some of whom died in the course of their search. Fenn himself died at the age of 90 several months after the treasure was found — but even now, Fenn’s legacy continues to hold people’s attention.

At New York, Benjamin Wallace explored the community that cropped up around the search for Fenn’s treasure. For some, the value of that treasure was key; for others, the thrill of piecing together clues was paramount.

Wallace’s article focuses on one particular treasure hunter, a man named Justin Posey. Through Posey’s experience, you get a sense of how things can escalate: as time passed, Posey’s own search involved a dog trained to sniff for metals in the soil, as well as creating “a machine-learning algorithm that could scan video for anomalies in pupil dilation, eye focus, and eyebrow movement.” Why? So that he could analyze footage of Fenn for potential lies and misdirection.

Wallace’s article also gives a good sense of the community that arose around the search for treasure, which included some allegiances and other rivalries. Throughout it, Fenn himself feels like a fascinating and contradictory figure. There’s also the matter of this: “A few female searchers claimed Fenn had dangled the promise of hints to get them to send him revealing photos,” writes Wallace — though he also notes that Fenn denied having done so.

It isn’t hard to see why this story has resonated with so many. Wallace notes that Posey, as a child, wanted to be Indiana Jones. The hunt for something like this is as close as most people will get to be Indiana Jones (or Lara Croft or Nathan Drake, if video games are more your point of reference). Wallace neatly explains the appeal of a search like this, but he also makes its flaws and dangers very clear.

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