Forrest Fenn figured he had dodged death plenty of times.
He launched his famous treasure hunt in 2010, in the face of a cancer diagnosis when he thought the disease would kill him for sure.
Long before that, there were combat flights as a pilot during wars in Korea and Vietnam. One of the leather jackets he wore in those airplanes was on display in his oft-photographed home office and showroom on Old Santa Fe Trail.
This time, Fenn is really gone. And with him, more than a few secrets also stay buried.
Santa Fe police confirmed Fenn died at his home Monday.
"He had been ill for a while and was at home," said Greg Gurule, a police spokesman, noting the cause of death appears to be "natural."
Fenn, a slight man who spoke in the identifiable drawl of a Texan and had an easy laugh, was a staple in Santa Fe's 20th century art and artifact trade. He once owned the sprawling gallery at the corner of Paseo de Peralta and Acequia Madre, which he sold to Nedra Matteucci in 1988, and is credited with being one of the dealers who helped popularize New Mexico's historic painters and creating a collectors' market for their works.
For longtime local gallerist Linda Durham, Fenn was a mentor who encouraged risk-taking and a supportive bastion of what became the city's thriving art market. After she worked for him for a year in the 1970s and learned the trade, Durham went on to open a contemporary art gallery she ran for more than 30 years.
"People from those early days, splendid people, are disappearing from our lives, but not from our memories," she tells SFR.
Fenn, she says, had a habit of arriving at work before everyone else and made sure to be among the last to leave. His ability to scope out lesser known artists and make solid investments in promoting them paid off time and time again, especially in the genres in which he specialized. His gallery, she said, was "a phenomenon."
"By the time I got there, Forrest would have already found a picture in a magazine of somebody's house in Montana that had a picture of a Remington on the wall and he would find a way to find that person and see if they wanted to sell it or buy something else," she says. "He was the ultimate salesman and showman."
Fenn is survived by his wife Peggy and daughters Kelly and Zoe. A family representative tells SFR they didn't want to comment for this story.
To hear Fenn tell it (like he did in our 2018 cover story "The Legend of Fenn's Gold"), collecting was his passion throughout his life. He moved from bottle caps and string as a kid to fine art and rare books, and took a big interest in Native American objects.
This part of the story is not all icons and flag-waving.
The FBI executed a search warrant at Fenn's home in 2009 seeking eagle feathers, ancient Native artifacts and sacred items, as well as records dealing with sale or possible illegal possession of such items. (Read more in this SFR story from Laura Paskus that year.)
As investigations exposed thefts and breaches of ethics by many of his colleagues in the artifact trade in the Southwest, it appears Fenn never faced formal allegations from the government.
He did, however, own a piece of land that contained remnants of San Lazaro Pueblo near Cerrillos. His "private digs" there caused a stir. Among the eight books he published, one focuses on that site.
Shelley Thompson, who volunteers as an archaeological site steward in New Mexico, said the news of Fenn's death will no doubt bring up questions about provenance and ethics of his vast private collection—often showed off to visitors.
"For those of us who use our own time, money and passionate energy to be the eyes and ears for our cultural resources, the story of the rape of a site like San Lazaro is heartbreaking," Thompson writes to SFR. "Jump with me from being a steward who tiptoes around sites careful to only look and report—to being a private land owner like Forrest who used earth-moving equipment to access Native American dwellings, sacred spaces and burials that were never meant for casual, prying eyes, if at all. I have always been deeply appalled by his dangerous publicity antics and his complete disregard for Native sovereignty. May he rest in peace and we all learn a lesson going forward."
Among those "antics," of course, is Fenn's famed hidden treasure. He published a book and poem with clues to its location, promising he'd stowed gold coins, jewels and jewelry, among other items, in a bronze chest "in the mountains north of Santa Fe."
Fenn always said he had "a way" to keep an eye on the treasure and, in June, he confirmed someone had found it. That person, he said, wanted to keep their identity a secret. And so it is.
The treasure chest is not the only thing Fenn hid. He also claims to have buried eight copper jars decorated with frog and dragonfly designs that contain small print versions of his autobiography.
"Not a day passes that I don't question myself about what lies just ahead and whether or not I can make it happen like it's supposed to be…" he wrote in The Thrill of the Chase, published when he was 79 years old. "Each day tests me in a different way and I know that before too long I'll make my last flight to where every memory itself will never have been. Sooner or later each of us will be nothing but the leftovers of history or an asterisk in a book that was never written."