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X Marks the Spot

Treasure hunters have reacted with shock, delight and disbelief to the news that a chest containing gems, gold and antiques worth up to $2m has reportedly been found in the Rocky Mountains.

Older readers of OGN Daily will recall 30 years ago when author Kit Williams sparked the nation's biggest treasure hunt after his book, Masquerade, laid clues for finding an 18-carat gold hare somewhere in Britain.

Wind the clock forward to 2010, and an eccentric New Mexico millionaire named Forrest Fenn said that he had hidden a bronze chest somewhere in the Rockies. The only clues to the treasure's whereabouts were concealed in a short, cryptic poem he wrote and added to the last pages of his autobiography, The Thrill of the Chase.

“Begin it where warm waters halt / And take it in the canyon down, / Not far, but too far to walk. / Put in below the home of Brown,” reads the second stanza of Fenn’s poem that would inspire treasure hunters to scour five western states. Kit Williams would have recognised the collective hysteria; and Fenn's prize was worth considerably more than a single golden hare.

“I’ve had every emotion under the sun,” said Sacha Dent of Kansas, who dedicated years to a quest. “First it was shock and sadness, then on Monday a mix of happiness, relief and excitement,” said Dent. “I’ve invested six years into this. Now it’s finally over. I am very happy for the person who found it.”

On 7 June, Fenn, a former air force fighter pilot turned art and antiquities dealer, told a Santa Fe newspaper that a man from the eastern US had recently located his treasure, which has variously been valued anywhere from $1m to $2m. According to Fenn’s website, it was found “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 ten years ago”.

Neither the name of the finder nor the location of the treasure has been disclosed. “I do not know the person who found it, but the poem in my book led him to the precise spot,” Fenn wrote on his website. 

The discovery marks the end of a modern-day treasure hunt unlike any in history. “This has been a horrible ending to something that has been so extremely important in my life for eight years,” said Cynthia Meachum, who is part of a vibrant “chase” community of Fenn treasure seekers. “It has affected me a lot more than I thought it ever would.”

According to Fenn, the idea was conceived in 1988 after he was diagnosed with cancer. The prospect of death made him think to leave part of his fortune in a treasure chest somewhere in the mountains. When Fenn beat cancer, the idea persisted, and he meticulously curated the contents of the chest for years. 

Fenn described a “necklace that’s about 2,000 years old, and it has fetishes made out of quartz crystal and cast gold jaguar claws, and it’s absolutely wonderful”, in a 2018 interview with the Guardian. “There are two ancient Chinese jade carvings of human faces. You just want to cry when you see them.” 

Fenn hoped the treasure would be an adventure that could get people “off the couch” and into the outdoors. “He provided us all with great adventure,” said Dent, who searched twice a week for years in northern New Mexico. 

Yet in the course of looking for Fenn’s chest, as many as five people have died, and Fenn has been criticized for endangering lives, enabling an unhealthy obsession, and even lying about the treasure’s existence. 

“I would implore him that he stop this nonsense,” the New Mexico state police chief, Pete Kassetas, said after a treasure hunter’s body was retrieved from the Rio Grande River in 2017, days after he had gone missing. He told ABC: “I want people to have fun, and I want people to be adventurous, but the reality is when you have $2m or so, as it’s rumored to be, at stake, people make poor decisions.”

There are the stories of people quitting their jobs and emptying their bank accounts to pursue the chase. Anyway, it's all over now. One person is rich beyond their wildest dreams and everyone else can now go back to sitting on their couch.

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