Earlier this week, MONEY published a deep dive into the global hunt for the Forrest Fenn treasure, a chest full of gold and jewels hidden in the Rocky Mountains. People are spending thousands of dollars buying vintage maps, plane tickets, hiking gear and more as they search for the treasure.
For most, the chase is a hobby, but for some, it’s an costly obsession. It can also be dangerous, as the Gallatin County Sheriff’s Office pointed out in a recent warning to Fenn treasure hunters in Montana.
In our reporting, we discovered another interesting trend. People aren’t just spending money searching the Rocky Mountains for Forrest Fenn’s hidden treasure chest. They’re also making it.
When the author-slash-art gallery owner stashed his riches out west a decade ago and published nine clues about the location, he created a phenomenon — and a customer base. An estimated 350,000 people from around the world have participated in the treasure hunt, obsessively researching Fenn, buying equipment and traveling to the Rockies in pursuit of his multimillion-dollar chest. The cash is flowing, and a cottage industry has sprung up as a result.
Beneficiaries range from the state of New Mexico to enterprising searchers like Dal Neitzel, who sells one of Fenn’s memoirs on his blog. The book is $55 plus $8.99 shipping and handling.
“Forrest himself was an entrepreneur,” Neitzel points out. “We have money, and we’re willing to spend it on our friends and willing to spend it on research and get out there and look for Forrest’s treasure.”
A Modern-Day Gold Rush
Nobody knows where Fenn hid the chest, but the general consensus is that it’s hidden somewhere in Colorado, Wyoming, Montana or New Mexico. And because the 88-year-old lives in New Mexico and has said the treasure is “in the mountains north of Santa Fe,” many searchers start their quests there. New Mexico’s tourism department is so grateful for the buzz that it featured Fenn himself in a promotional video back in 2015.
(Controversially, it then boasted about the “New Clue Released in Famed Hunt for New Mexico Treasure.” Fenn later refuted this, saying that he did not give clues in the clip and people should not interpret his participation to mean that the chest is in New Mexico.)
Dorothy Massey, the owner of Collected Works Bookstore in Santa Fe, has seen the tourism boom firsthand. She says visitors range from couples who will fly in for a weekend of searching to “high schoolers who will come with a teacher over the break and camp in the woods and probably live on peanut butter for three days.”
When out-of-town searchers come to the city, many of them stop by her bookstore because it’s “the sole distributor of Forrest Fenn books worldwide,” meaning it handles printing and shipping. Fenn also signs Collected Works copies, adding extra value to them.
Massey says she doesn’t know how many Fenn copies she’s sold, “but it’s a bunch.”
“Our business is selling books, and so obviously this has been good for our bookstore,” she adds.
The Thrill of the Chase is $35, plus $13 for shipping. Fenn, a cancer survivor, has asked that a portion of the profits get donated to people undergoing cancer treatment.
‘Go for It, and Good Luck’
A handful of searchers have also turned the hunt into a side hustle. “Copper Dan” Hedblom, an artist who lives in Rochester, Minnesota, recently designed a limited-edition torched-copper piece themed around the chase.
He and his wife, through their business Copper Elements, put it up for sale for $100. They called it “Where Warm Waters Halt” after Fenn’s first clue.
“It just took off,” he says. “We made 80 of them … the first 40 sold in a week.”
He’s now planning to make a piece for each of the nine clues. And, as he’s quick to clarify, he did get Fenn’s blessing.
“I emailed him. Getting a reply back from the man is near impossible, and I got a reply,” Hedblom says. “He said, ‘You don’t need my permission, Copper Dan. Go for it, and good luck.'”
Like Hedblom, most of the searchers making money from the search are able to rake in profits because they know their audience well. The Fenn search attracts a certain kind of person — specifically, one who appreciates history — and that means most participants also share a love of collecting. Any item that appeals to that trait will sell.
Sometimes, it even happens accidentally.
A while back, Las Vegas searcher Mike Cowling decided to make Fenn-branded coins, much like challenge coins in the military. He thought that if he numbered each coin, 1 to 1,000, then searchers could leave them in the wilderness for each other to discover. The number would give the finder a way to get in touch with the person who left it.
“What I didn’t know is that, by putting a sequence number on the coin, it made it a collectible,” he says. “So now people really want certain sequence numbers, whether it’s a birthday or anniversary. I didn’t anticipate that.”
Cowling initially sold them for $15 each; now they’re going for hundreds on eBay. The lower the number, the higher the price. No. 3 sold for $920 this past April.
Cowling and Kristie Thor, who go by the names Cowlazars and KPro online, also resell topographic maps they purchased from Fenn’s personal collection last year. They say they’re not getting rich from it, but they’re generating backlash nonetheless: Cowling says he regularly gets emails from people asking how he can justify making money from the chase.
But he, like Hedblom, is also careful not to suggest that purchasing these souvenirs will necessarily give searchers an advantage in the hunt for Fenn’s chest. They’re just fun: a Fenn-like venture to pursue while they’re trying to find the treasure.
“How do you think Forrest Fenn got all the money to create the treasure chest and put all that gold in it? He’s a businessman; he owned an art gallery,” Cowling says. “That’s what it’s about.”