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Economy

Late Eccentric Art Dealer Forrest Fenn's Treasure Hunt Ends After A Decade

STEVE INSKEEP, HOST:

Eleven years ago, a now-deceased millionaire hid a treasure somewhere in the mountains out west and published a riddle that would help hunters find it. The chase spawned partnerships, even marriages, but also inspired hunters to dig up cemeteries, attempt burglary. This even led to five deaths. Alexi Horowitz-Ghazi of our daily economics podcast, The Indicator, has more.

ALEXI HOROWITZ-GHAZI, BYLINE: Cynthia Meachum first heard about the treasure about eight years ago. She was living near Albuquerque, N.M., working as an engineer at Intel.

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CYNTHIA MEACHUM: One of my co-workers sort of moseyed up to me and quietly whispered, have you heard of the Forrest Fenn treasure hunt? And I said, no. And then he said, oh, my God, you have to Google Forrest Fenn.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Forrest Fenn, Meachum learned, was an eccentric octogenarian art dealer who was claiming to have hidden an antique treasure chest filled with over a million dollars' worth of gold coins and rare relics somewhere in the Rocky Mountains.

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MEACHUM: I mean, "Raiders Of the Lost Art," just one of my all-time favorite movies. I wanted to be in that movie.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: She picked up some maps and a copy of the book full of clues and headed out into the wilderness later that week. And Meachum basically never stopped looking.

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HOROWITZ-GHAZI: How much money do you think you ended up spending over the last decade hunting for this treasure?

MEACHUM: Probably 30,000 bucks, maybe, over 10 years.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Wow.

National media ran with the story of the hunt, and soon enough, thousands of treasure hunters were descending on the Rocky Mountain states each year. But Dan Barbarisi, author of a new book called "Chasing The Thrill," says it wasn't too long before a dark side began to emerge around the hunt. Searchers got into dangerous situations in the wilderness, and some took their conspiratorial treasure theories to dangerous lengths.

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DAN BARBARISI: There was a guy who broke into Fenn's compound and actually absconded with a chest of sorts. It was a laundry chest, but he did leave with it. And Fenn actually came home. He and one of his daughters ended up holding the man at gunpoint.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Another searcher became obsessed with the idea that one of Fenn's granddaughters was the real treasure and was arrested for stalking. Another guy was arrested for digging up a cemetery in Yellowstone. And then, in the winter of 2016, the first treasure hunter died, followed eventually by four more.

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BARBARISI: When people start dying in numbers, that created a lot of calls to say, hey, is this thing worth having? Should we end this before more people die?

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: But the hunt continued on - until last year, when the world learned a 32-year-old medical student named Jack Stuef had found it.

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HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Do you remember where you were when you found out somebody had found the treasure?

MEACHUM: Do you know where you were when Kennedy was shot or when the space shuttle blew up?

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: And that was only three months before Forrest Fenn himself died last September at the age of 90.

MEACHUM: And it was like, OK, now it's really over. With Forrest gone, it is really, really over.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: Stuef has yet to divulge the specific place he found the chest, beyond that it was in Wyoming. But he did tell author Dan Barbarisi that he's currently preparing the treasure for sale.

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HOROWITZ-GHAZI: I asked searcher Cynthia Meachum, when she weighed the adventure and camaraderie of the hunt with the deaths and controversy, whether she thought it had all been worth it in the end.

MEACHUM: Oh, my God, yes, it was worth it. These are like the best 10 years of my life.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: And in fact, even though the treasure has been claimed, Meachum and her fellow hunters are now setting their sights on finding out where it was found.

MEACHUM: The hunt continues for us crazy people that just have no life and who will just not let it go.

HOROWITZ-GHAZI: She says she's headed back to Yellowstone this summer.

Alexi Horowitz-Ghazi, NPR News.

(SOUNDBITE OF WHALE FALL'S "OLD COUNTY") Transcript provided by NPR, Copyright NPR.