Santa Fe art dealer and collector Forrest Fenn famously hid a treasure chest -- supposedly worth over one-million dollars -- in the Rocky Mountains in 2010.
Based on a riddle-laden poem in Fenn's memoir, hundreds of thousands are said to have pursued the elusive treasure for a decade, and five men died searching the mountains for the trove, stirring controversy.
Fenn's purpose, he said, was to get people out in nature. One man finally discovered the secret treasure chest in 2020. Where he found it and who he is remains a secret, and Fenn died two months after the discovery.
Fenn had only revealed: "It was 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 10 years ago."
Next month, Hindman Auctions will offer up Native American Art: The Lifetime Collection of Forrest Fenn at auction. Fenn's collection exemplifies both a lifetime of passion for Native American art, while also demonstrating his enthusiasm for discovery and history. June 9 will be the first of two auctions offering selections from Fenn’s personal Native American art collection, with the second to be presented in the fall of 2022.
Fenn began collecting at a young age, exploring the plains of Texas and the mountains of Montana searching for arrowheads. After retiring from the Air Force, Fenn established Arrowsmith-Fenn Gallery, among the first galleries in Santa Fe, with his partner Rex Arrowsmith, which eventually became Fenn Gallery. The gallery became incredibly successful, offering a range of Native American art such as artifacts, paintings, and bronze sculptures, and attracting legendary names. The gallery was also known for championing the then almost-forgotten Taos School of Southwestern artists.
Following his recovery from cancer, he went on to write a memoir titled The Thrill of the Chase in 2010 in which he mentions a treasure he hid somewhere in the Rocky Mountains. “Fenn’s Treasure” took hold with the public and media and the playful memoir became a legendary hunt for the riches by outdoor enthusiasts and treasure-seekers alike. The treasure was found shortly before Fenn’s death in 2020.
“We are proud to be presenting this truly renowned collection from a man who has left his mark on the collecting community with his enthusiasm and playfulness for the objects and the industry,” shared Hindman’s Vice President for Native American Art Danica Farnand. “Fenn was a celebrated figure within both the Native American and Western Art collecting worlds, and the auction offers bidders a unique opportunity to acquire works from a fabled collector.”
Highlighting this 168-lot auction will be a significant collection of impressive pottery and baskets, many in uniquely impressive sizes. Rare photography, dolls, beadwork, and Plains material will also be offered. Top lots include a Sioux Twisted Pipe Stem with Catlinite Bowl that belonged to Sitting Bull (lot 379; estimate: $60,000 - $80,000) and a 19th Century Sioux Grizzly Bear Claw Necklace (lot 380; estimate: $40,000 - $60,000).
“I was in awe of the impressive array of huge Pueblo storage jars lining shelves 20 feet above the floor of Fenn’s den in his Santa Fe home,” said Wes Cowan, Hindman Vice Chair. “Beadwork from various Plains tribes filled two entire walls, and a table displayed a collection of rare Plains dolls. The collection spilled over to the floor, under tables, and over doorways.”
The auction includes a selection of rare photographs, with the majority taken by the firm of William J. Lenny and William L. Sawyers who operated a photo studio in Purcell, Oklahoma in the late 1880s and early 1890s. It is thought that Fenn acquired many of these images from the estate of famed Western painter Joseph Henry Sharp. A group of 19 significant images of the Kwahadi Comanche leader Quanah Parker (lot 301; estimate $10,000-15,000) who emerged as a war leader in the early 1870s and became one of the best known Native American leaders of the 19th and early 20th centuries will also be offered.
Fenn was noted for his collection of Pueblo pottery and this portion of the auction is expected to draw significant interest. Among the highlights are a number of monumentally sized storage jars including a pair of Large Cochiti Pottery Storage Jars (lots 444 & 445; estimate for each: $20,000 - $30,000) from 1860, measuring in 18-1/2 inches in height by 20 inches in diameter and 18-1/2 inches in height by 19 inches in diameter.
Dolls & Beadwork
Fenn authored Historic American Indian Dolls and a number of examples from this publication are offered in the sale. A Rare Wasco or Yakima Beaded Pictorial Hide Doll Cradle, with Doll (lot 351; estimate: $15,000 - $25,000), a pair of Cheyenne Beaded Hide Dolls from 1890 (lot 321; estimate: $8,000- $10,000) and a 19th Century Western Apache Beaded Hide Doll (lot 317; estimate: $5,000-7,000) are expected to see intense competition among bidders.
Fenn was also widely known for his collection of Southern Plains beaded strike-a-lite pouches, and the sale includes some of his most sought-after examples. Other beaded items include an impressive selection of moccasins, knife sheaths, pouches and tobacco bags. A pair of Kiowa Beaded Hide Leggings from the studio of Western artist Henry Balink (lot 307; estimate: $5,000-7,000) is among the standouts in the category.
How to Bid
Bidding for the June 9th auction will begin at 10am ET, and will be available in-person at Hindman’s new Cincinnati salesroom located on Oaklawn Drive, via telephone and online via Hindman’s Digital Bid Room and additional online bidding platforms.