LORENE MILLS: Hello, I’m Lorene Mills and welcome to The Report from Santa Fe

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13-05-2011 Report From Santa Fe Click Here
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Video transcript on Report From Santa Fe with Lorene Mills with Forrest Fenn - 1st Appearance LORENE MILLS: Hello, I’m Lorene Mills and welcome to The Report from Santa Fe. Our guest today is Forrest Fenn. Thank you for joining us.

FORREST FENN: My pleasure

MILLS: Many know you of course as the owner of one of Santa Fe’s finest art galleries for years and years, but you’ve also written a wonderful book - wonderful in many ways that we’ll explore. But I just want to hold it up now. It’s called “The Thrill of The Chase - A Memoir” and it’s dedicated to anyone who loves the thrill of the chase. So welcome to the show.

FENN: Thank you, I’m pleased to be here.

MILLS: Well, I want to talk a little about your background, because you bring some really unusual experiences to you work. You were 20 years a fighter pilot with the US Air Force you fought - you flew 328 combat missions in Vietnam?

FENN: Yes ma’am.

MILLS: And you lived to tell the tale. Thank you! And then you came to Santa Fe after you retired from the military, and you started an art gallery. And you said, at that time, you’d never studied art, you didn’t own an art painting, uh, a painting, and you didn’t know anybody who did. So what made you choose…?

FENN: Well, uh, I had a bad tour in Vietnam. I was shot down twice and I lost 22 pounds and didn’t even know it. And I worked almost every hour of every day, it seemed like. And when I came home, I was just worn out. And Santa Fe was the only place that I knew where I could wear hush puppies and a short sleeve shirt and maybe make a living. And Santa Fe is an artsy town, so that’s what I had to do. And I came to the right place at the right time with the right product and the art business was good to me, and Santa Fe’s been good to me.

MILLS: Well your gallery was so special, it was The Fenn Gallery right on Paseo de Peralta, it was first of all a beautiful building with beautiful gardens and a pond in the back and you had the finest caliber of art. You had the great masters, but you also had something that was very different from any other gallery because you had signs that said, “Please Touch” and why did you do that when everyone else is guarding you and standing in between you and the art so you can’t even experience it?

FENN: I told this story in my book. I went into the Kachina Gallery when I first came to Santa Fe. They sold nothing but Kachinas and they were just stacked everywhere and the little signs around said, “If you touch it, you bought it”, “You are responsible for your kids”, “Do not touch” and it scared me so bad that I put my hands in my pockets and tried to get out. But I started thinking, you know, I need to learn something from that. So I went back to my gallery and made about 15 little signs that said, “Please touch, I am responsible.” The theory is: how can someone buy a great item if they’re not allowed to touch it?

MILLS: Yeah, yeah. You also tell the story in your book about you had one of the most famous portraits of George Washington, and a school group came in.

FENN: That’s right.

MILLS: And you actually had each child come up and touch one of America’s greatest portraits of our first president.

FENN: We had each child wash their hands real good, and I told them not to push, not to scrape, not to use your fingernails, but just gently touch George Washington and close your eyes and think. Because when that portrait was painted, Gilbert Stewart painted it sitting as close as you and I are together with George Washington. So if you can touch that painting in some small way, you may make a connection with those two people. It’s worked for me. People collect autographs for the same reason. It’s the connection that they like. And I feel sorry for people that don’t have that depth of imagination.

MILLS: Yeah. Yes. Because one of our favorite mutual quotes is that Albert Einstein quote, “Imagination is more important than knowledge.”

FENN: That’s Einstein.

MILLS: Yes.

FENN: And I believe it.

MILLS: I do too. I do too. But I want to mention one other thing that was unique about your gallery and about autographs, because you have these exquisite guest houses sited on the property around the pond. Tell us some of the guests that have stayed there.

FENN: Oh gee. You know when I built that big guesthouse, my accountants in LA told me it was the dumbest thing that I ever did. And about two years later, he called me on the phone and said you paid for that thing four times a year. It’s the smartest thing you ever did. But we had Jackie Kennedy and President Ford and endless movie stars: Robert Redford and John Connelly was a frequent guest. And I have a guest register. You know, I had them sign the guest register and make a doodle. And it’s wonderful. I’ve saved all those things.

MILLS: You said that Cher in particular had this wonderful -

FENN: Cher had a flair, and we were sitting by the fireplace in the guest house and one of her boyfriends was with her and he was, I think, her manager. And she was in town to be on a live award show in Albuquerque and the rest of the show walked in and well what’s Chere supposed to do with - at the show tonight? Cher said, “I’ll wing it.” She didn’t want to know what he wanted, she’ll just do it here way. And, you know, that’s the way she was and she signed her name the same way.

MILLS: Uh-huh. Uh-huh.

FENN: And I think that’s her personality. That’s a metaphor for who Cher is. She can do anything.

MILLS: Yeah, um, you’ve always been a collector which manifested itself in the art collection at the gallery, but in your book you talk about how your father - you used to collect soda pop caps.

FENN: Soda pop caps.

MILLS: And you had, because each one was from a bottle that had drunk, but tell us what your father did to change your attitude toward that collection.

FENN: Well, you know I learned a lot from him. And he was subtle in some of the things he did. I had probably a hundred cap, bottle caps, and you know how kids are. They’re on the floor, they’re on the radio, they’re on his desk, and he decided to cure me one day. So we were in all the gas stations that sold pop and collected all their caps in a huge box. It came home at night and had me - must have been several thousand bottle caps. Absolutely ruined me. I mean how can you continue to collect bottle caps if it looks like you have all of them that were made already? Within an hour I had lost interest in all those.

MILLS: But you never lost interest in collecting, and the thrill of the chase.

FENN: Yes, the thrill of the chase.

MILLS: And so, I want to talk about your book, “The Thrill of the Chase” and what - it’s a memoir so you have wonderful stories about your life. I think really it’s a fabulous read. But you also have a treasure hunt, and one of the reasons I wanted to do the show is to talk - have you talk about the treasure hunt that you’ve set out and why you are doing it.

FENN: You know there’s a good quote in the new Duveen book and it says, “They never knew it was the chase they sought, and not the quarry.” Isn’t that interesting?

MILLS: Ahhhh, yes.

FENN: In the art business I loved to find a great painting. But there was a let down after I found it because the chase was over. Anybody can sell a great painting, but not everybody can find one. So the thrill was in the chase, and I loved that. Still do.

MILLS: So, at this time, as we speak, you have buried - is it buried? You have placed a treasure somewhere in the mountains north of Santa Fe

FENN: That’s right.

MILLS: And it is in an 11th century box, at least describe the treasure chest.

FENN: It’s in an 11th century Romanesque bible box, or a box of letters, and it’s a beautiful box. I gave a fortune for that thing, but I loved it so much. And then, when I got sick in 1988, they took a kidney out and they found a big cancerous tumor under the kidney. They gave me a 20% chance of living three years. And, you know, that’ll open your eyes, and makes you start thinking about mortality. And finally after a couple of weeks, after that soaked in, one night, about three o’clock, I told myself if I’ve got to go, I’m just going to take it with me. And that’s when I got the box and started filling it up with what I call were precious things. There are 20.2 Troy pounds of gold in that chest and lots of jewelry, bracelets, necklaces, diamonds, emeralds, rubies.

MILLS: And, to be a little more specific, there’s a bracelet that has 246 rubies and emeralds and diamonds. And a Spanish 17th century gold ring with a big emerald in it?

FENN: I bought that bracelet from Eric Sloane. He had given it to his wife, and she didn’t like it. So I bought it from him.

MILLS: And gold coins and gold nuggets, some of which weigh a pound?

FENN: There are two gold nuggets in there that weigh more than a pound apiece. Placer nuggets from Alaska. And 225 gold coins.

MILLS: And gold frogs from Costa Rica? Panama? Pre-Columbian?

FENN: Pre-Columbian things that date from the 7th to 12th century.

MILLS: These are truly treasures. You put them all in this beautiful treasure chest.

FENN: What I told myself was, that when I was building this thing was, you know, I’m 80 years old so, you know, the handwriting is on the wall. But I told myself I’ve had so much fun over the decades - six decades - collecting these things… Now if I’ve got to go, why not let somebody else have the same kind of fun that I have had. And that’s why I wrote the poem that’s in my book. There are nine clues in that poem. If you can follow the clues to the chest, you can have it, and the poem says that.

MILLS: And all we know is that we can’t even geographically make it any - narrow it down any more?

FENN: People are always asking me that question. The other day I said…

MILLS: Just a hundred square miles?

FENN: I’ll give you a clue for your readers. The chest is more than 300 miles west of Toledo.

MILLS: Okay (laughing).

FENN: And it’s not in Nevada, so. Those are big clues.

MILLS: Okay then. Well, and we want people to have the thrill of the chase.

FENN: I’ve got a friend here in town that’s been out looking for it nine different days. He owns a shop here. He only gets off on Sunday but he heads out.

MILLS: Uh-huh.

FENN: I don’t think he’s found it yet. He hasn’t told me.

MILLS: That’s what I want to know. How will we know if somebody finds it? Will you let - make an announcement?

FENN: Depends on the person. The person that finds it may not want the IRS to know it.

MILLS: Oh that’s true.

FENN: In which case, I’ll never know it probably.

MILLS: Finders keepers. Yeah, yeah.

FENN: But the kind of person that would go out and find it is the same kind of person that can’t keep it quiet.

MILLS: Yeah. Yeah.

FENN: He’s like me. You know, he’s got to broadcast it.

MILLS: Now does anybody else, besides you, know where this is?

FENN: Nobody.

MILLS: Because you had said, in one of your lines from the book is that, “Two people can keep a secret as long as one of them is dead.”

FENN: That’s an old mafia saying.

MILLS: Yeah, well, um, I think it’s wonderful. I’ve read the poem. I could only determine one clue, so I doubt I’m going to be the person that finds the treasure chest.

FENN: Well don’t give up. It’s the thrill of the chase.

MILLS: It is the thrill of the chase. But another thing that you’ve done that I find so moving is that you have had these bronze bells created. Beautiful bells, and the clanger, the clapper is a 17th century Spanish nail. Tell us about those beautiful bells.

FENN: I make bells out of wax. And around the edges I write different things. And then, I’m burying them with my name and the date. I really don’t want anyone to find them for 1,000 or 10,000 years. The Rosetta Stone was buried for 2,000 years before it was found. Don’t you know that guy is proud today?

MILLS: Yeah, and you say on one of the bells, you say, um, “If you find this a thousand years after my death, ring this bell…”

FENN: “So I will know.”

MILLS: “So I will know.”

FENN: I think that’s pretty good.

MILLS: And you’re burying them deep so

FENN: Well I’m burying them deep enough so that normally a metal detector won’t find them - three to three and a half feet deep. Most metal detectors only - although the bells, you know, they weigh, three, four, five, six pounds apiece. So, you know, technology being what it is - somebody will find those bells. But if somebody finds them in 200 years, that’s okay.

MILLS: Yeah, yeah. I love that you have looked at this issue of permanence and impermanence and what do we have of our life. In your book, you describe this jungle clearing you had flown over with a waterfall. You always wanted to go, so as you were leaving, I think it was in Laos, right?

FENN: Mm-hmm.

MILLS: You, you stopped in there. You came in a helicopter to look around.

FENN: Well I felt like I owed it to that gravemarker. The gravemarker said, “If you should ever think of me when I have passed this vell, and wish to please my ghost, forgive a sinner and smile at a homely girl.” But I didn’t know that. I didn’t find that till after I went down there. I was shot down the day before. Picked up, taken to Nakhon Phanom, Thailand in a helicopter and flew back to Tuy Hoa, Vietnam where I was stationed. Then I talked an Army buddy into, who had a helicopter, take me out there. It was very moving. It changed my life, and I talk about that at some length in my book.

MILLS: And that’s what I really love the issues that you bring up because what do we have that - what do we leave behind? As long as they say someone remembers us and says a prayer for us we live that long but that’s just a couple of generations.

FENN: Your listeners will say, some of them will say, well you know I don’t have anything to leave behind. But they do. They need to write their memoirs. Even if they write it out in pencil and paper. Send it to the Library of Congress. Date it and sign your name. And put everything you know about yourself in that. Because in a hundred or 500 years from now, that’s going to be an important document.

MILLS: Yeah, well look at the stuff from medieval times. What they had for breakfast.

FENN: That’s right. We all have so much to offer.

MILLS: Um, you say, can you repeat what you’ve chosen to be your epitaph? Um, “I wish I could have lived to do the things I was attributed to.”

FENN: Well, I’ve been accused of some pretty serious things in my lifetime. Sometimes there’s a little smoke, sometimes there’s not. I wish I could have done all the things that people accused me of doing. I would have lived a much better -

MILLS: Many more lives.

FENN: Yeah, much more fun.

MILLS: Yeah. Um, I want to come back to the gallery for a minute because you’ve raised some very interesting issues. I have been a follower of a man named Elmyr De Hory who was the best art forger in the world. And he even forged the, um, Howard Hughes manuscript that - it’s a very big case in history and his work

FENN: Clifford Irving.

MILLS: Clifford Irving. Yeah. And so, uh, you would sell, you and former Governor John Connelly of Texas, bought a bunch of Elmyr De Hory’s and you would sell them. And, he never signed his work. And he did, not copies of masters but pastiches.

FENN: In the style of

MILLS: In the style of.

FENN: If he copied one, then he would be found out. His were actually forgeries. And he said that all the great American museums have his paintings and don’t know it.

MILLS: Well, you, they’re called “masterfleeces” and from the 80’s on this has been a big thing in the art world. But you had said some really interesting things. “If they’re as good as real, if they look as good as real, then what are we talking about? What is art?” And I had read that you had said that people would see one of these paintings and fall in love with it. And then when they found out it wasn’t the real thing, they would just be, you know, they wouldn’t want it. And you’d say, “You loved it when you saw it. You stopped loving it as soon as you knew there was no signature. Who’s the fake here? The painting on the wall, or you?”

FENN: That’s right. So, when I was a kid, I started making rules. When something significant would happen to me, I’d make a rule. And always the first rule, when I sold my gallery I had a 109 rules. Number one on the list was this: It doesn’t matter who you are. It only matters who they think you are. That’s how Andy Warhol got there. That’s how Nieman-Marcus got there and I could go on and on.

MILLS: Well I’m going to finish that quote for you because then you say, “It’s true in Hollywood, it’s true in politics, and it’s true with the painting. It doesn’t matter who you are, it’s who they think you are.” That’s a good first rule.

FENN: Well, a salesman - it doesn’t matter how good that aluminum pan is. It only matters how good he can make you think it is. If he can make you think it’s really great, he can sell it to you. I said also in my book that no sales person has ever been accused of understating. And I believe that.

MILLS: Yes.

FENN: We’re all charlatans to some degree, you know, about ourselves. You know, I thought that one time that women are fakes themselves. They wear lipstick, and mascara. They’re misrepresenting the product.

MILLS: Well there’s an art to that, Forrest.

FENN: (laughing) That’s right.

MILLS: There is an art to that.

FENN: Propagates the thrill of the chase.

MILLS: Yes, exactly. Exactly. But, um, the whole thing about what is real art, and what is fake art, and forgeries, one of my favorite aspects of your other line of business, which is Native American artifacts is the coyote trickster who lies to bring you the truth. So if you ultimately arrive at the truth, does it matter how you got there?

FENN: Which, all societies have had “fetishes.” You know they’re called different things, but with American Indians, there are a lot of different fetishes. And, the fetish is not worth anything unless you believe in it. But if you believe in it, it can be awesome.

MILLS: Yeah, yeah.

FENN: The most primitive tribes, even in New Guinea and the Amazon jungle, they all have fetishes of one kind or another. Very important. And all religions today have fetishes. They don’t call them that, but that’s what they are. It’s important that we believe.

MILLS: And my academic work was in shamanism, so if you’re in the Amazon, and the sorcerer, the medicine man comes around, plays his rattle and chants and then pulls a feather out of your ear, saying the enemy sorcerer put it there, and you are well, does it matter whether it is objectively true or not if you are well?

FENN: It doesn’t matter what it is, it only matters what you think it is. And what it can do for you. And what you can offer with it. Very important.

MILLS: So you had a, quite a Native American collection? In the gallery?

FENN: I collected things, yes.

MILLS: Yeah. Tell us what your favorites were. I know that there’s a couple of items of world class that you have.

FENN: Well, I started collecting arrowheads because I didn’t have any money and my father would take me out and we’d walk the river bottoms and across plowed fields and pick up arrowheads and scrapers and different things and uh, wonderful experience. That was my first love and still is. And I still have my collection of arrowheads. The first arrowhead I ever found is probably my most cherished object. Because I picked it up, and my father saw me do it, and he saw the expression on my face when I decided that was an arrowhead and I was nine years old. And he told me every year until he died it was one of his thrills to look at me and see that I had such a satisfied look on my face. Contentment is the key word. If you can go through this life being contented, then there’s nothing better than that.

MILLS: Well, and how luck you were that you had a dad that was that perceptive to you.

FENN: We have a problem in this country today with our youth and part of the problem is that fathers are not taking their sons and daughters out to not only collect arrowheads but fishing and hunting and hiking and picking up rocks or - and explaining geology and biology and those things. It’s very important and we’re - everyone is remiss today because of that. And our future could look better if we’d shape up some.

MILLS: I’d like to go down the Native American path a little bit more. Tell me, one of your books is called, “The Secret of San Lazaro Pueblo.”

FENN: “The Secrets of San Lazaro Pueblo.”

MILLS: Yes.

FENN: It’s a book I wrote about things that I excavated at a pueblo that I own called San Lazaro. It was first inhabited about 1150 A.D. and everybody left at the revolt in 1680. But there’s about 5,000 rooms out there. And I’ve dug right at 1% of the rooms and this book illustrates all the great things that we’ve excavated out there.

MILLS: Well there are archeologists who say that you’ve really done an impeccable job of cataloging everything

FENN: There are archeologists that don’t like me because I don’t have a PhD, and I don’t work exactly like they do.

MILLS: And you don’t give them what you find. That’s one of the reasons they don’t like you. They would like to have those treasures.

FENN: What would they do with it? Put it in a basement in a box and nobody would ever see it again.

MILLS: Well, you know, that’s uh, Craig Childs, who wrote “Finders Keepers” has this question, “Who owns the past?”

FENN: That’s an interesting question. You want me to answer it?

MILLS: Yes.

FENN: The guy that has the title.

MILLS: Oh.

FENN: He’s the one that owns the past.

MILLS: But you know, he describes himself - he spent so much time in the wilderness. And he found this one place where every burial tomb of these people was looted and he went, and he talks about this, and he went and stole a little broken pot back so that he could bury it with the spirits of those people. At some risk to himself, because he felt that was the right thing to do. And then said, wait a minute, I’m doing what I accuse everybody else of doing. Everyone else is doing what they think is right about these things. It’s a very interesting area.

FENN: It’s called finders remorse.

MILLS: Ahhh. Yeah, um, one of the objects that you own, if you could speak about it is Sitting Bull’s pipe. The very one in all the photographs. The very one. And you often say that it’s not always so much the object but story of the object.

FENN: Well, this man offered me, what he called was Sitting Bull’s pipe. It’s a beautiful pipe, but not special really. And it came with a picture of Sitting Bull holding a pipe that looked like the one that he was offering me. So I said, leave the pipe with me overnight so I can do some forensics on it and I’ll show you that it’s not the same pipe. So my daughter and I got on the computer and took pictures and blew them up. I saw grain in the wood and the stem on this pipe and we looked around at the picture. By golly, we start turning that thing around and made the picture transparent, put it on the one of Sitting Bull holding the pipe, and it was exactly. I mean, it had to be the same pipe. I mean, I was startled. You know, I’ve been offered so many things. I was offered a knife that killed Caesar. It came with a notarized letter.

MILLS: Well who’s - (laughing) And was it?

FENN: You’re easy!

MILLS: I know! And you researched it and of course, it was not?

FENN: I didn’t even research it.

MILLS: Another story you tell in yoru book is where you got the nails that you put in these bells that it was in Wyoming. Someone was - had the complete - they’d found the ruins of a conquistador protruding from an arroyo. They had the horse, the bones, all the accoutrements.

FENN: These were brass tacks, and this guy drove into the little town of Meeteetse, Wyoming. It was 35, 40… I hate to tell you how old I am, but it was a long time ago and I was getting some gas and this pickup truck pulled in there. A couple of guys got out, really excited. And in a minute there was 5 or 6 people standing around really excited and I walked over there and there was a horse skeleton, and a human skeleton in the back of this pickup truck and an old bridle. And I forget now what it was, but chainmail and this thing was a 16th or 17th century Spanish - I hate to say conquistador, but certainly an explorer. And this rancher had found it eroding out of an arroyo on his land.

MILLS: And you took the tacks

FENN: Well, they took the thing inside the building there, an old abandoned house. And I looked in the pickup truck and there were a bunch of brass tacks out of the horse gear that had fallen out and were laying in the pickup truck and I asked the guy that owned it if - I said, “If I jump in there and pick those things up, can I have them?” He said, “Yes, we have enough.” And I still have those things.

MILLS: Well, to me, again, it’s the story almost as value as much as the actual tacks. And so because we’re almost out of time, I want to ask you what is the thrill of the chase for you now? You do wonderful writing, you have a blog, you - I enjoy your reading and want you to keep on writing, but what else gives you the thrill of the chase?

FENN: You know, if you sit down, you start to decompose. And I don’t want to do that. I mean there are so many things that I want to do. So many things that I don’t want to be laying on my deathbed and say, sheesh I wish I had winked at that little girl in Peoria, you know 67 years ago and there’s so many good things to do. We spend too much time resting.

MILLS: Yeah, you rest you rest. Yes. Um, one more thing. Can you tell our people about the treasure hunt? And where to find the clues and

FENN: Well in my book there’s a poem, like I said. And there are nine clues in the poem. And the clues are in consecutive order. If you can read that - if you want to find the treasure chest, you have my book there, I’ll tell you how to do it. Read the book just normally. The poem, and the rest of the book. And then go back and read the poem 6, 8, 10 times. Study every line. Every word. Then after you do that, read the book again slowly with the idea of looking for clues or hints that are in the book that will help you follow the clues. You can find the chest with just the clues, but there are hints in the book that will help you with the clues.

MILLS: Again, the book is, “The Thrill of The Chase” and let’s just say a word about the proceeds from for this. You are not doing the treasure hunt to sell books. You actually have a very kind and charitable arrangement.

FENN: I didn’t want people to say that I did it - that the treasure chest was a gimmick to sell the book. So I’ve given all the books to the Collected Works Bookstore here in town.

MILLS: In Santa Fe.

FENN: All that they can sell, they can have for free. And they’ve - they’re putting in a fund, 10% of the gross from the sale of these books and when we get enough money we’re gonna, we’re gonna buy a cancer operation for some little kid that can’t afford it. That’s one of our goals. And we have people donating money to us just for that fund.

MILLS: Well it has been a thrill, thrill of the chase, to actually sit down and interview you.

FENN: Well thank you. You’ve done your homework on this thing. I didn’t - finally I found somebody that read my book.

MILLS: I read every bit of it and I loved it, so.

FENN: Well you’re a sweetheart. Thank you.

MILLS: Our guest today is Forrest Fenn. Thank you for joining us.

FENN: My pleasure.

MILLS: And I’m Lorene Mills. I wish you all the thrill of the chase. This is Report from Santa Fe and we’ll see you next week.