4 Reasons Searching For Buried Treasure Sucks IRL
With the recent revelation that the legendary fortune of Forrest Fenn has finally been found, you might be wondering how you too can get in on digging up millions of dollars of gold and jewels and pilfered Native American artifacts. Well, put down that bullwhip and fedora, Dr. Jones, because when it comes to unburying priceless booty, there's a lot less Tomb Raidering and a lot more lawsuits and parsing out self-published poetry and getting lured into the woods by old men.
Seeking Fortune and Glory ... From Your Living Room
While most pop-culture treasure maps are drawn on crumbling pieces of parchment paper littered with Xs and palms trees and cryptic sketches, the truth is a lot less exciting. The globetrotting and womanizing and fisticuffs are, as a rule, kept to a minimum.
For starters, most modern treasures are buried on purpose, in easily accessible areas, usually by aspiring authors and retirees with an extra couple grand lying around. Clues are then woven into children's books and unedited memoirs no one could find a publisher for. And you don't even have to, like, steal these books -- most of them are available on Amazon.
Far from scampering through booby-trapped jungles, the vast majority of a treasure hunter's job is spent deciphering bad poetry from the comfort of their own underpants. There's a lot more working with others online than you might think, and it's not uncommon for fortune-seekers to "solve" the puzzle and then reach out to others to do the actual dirty work of digging up private property and national parks. Furthering the disappointment, the treasures are also a lot more modest than the literal Holy Grails you might be hoping for. A lot of the buried booty is more symbolic than anything, comprised mostly of trinkets to be traded in for actual cash, with values topping out well under six figures -- and that's assuming the treasure even exists in the first place.
X Doesn't Always Mark the Spot
Imagine if Indiana Jones's eponymous ark was opened and, instead of holy murder-ghosts, the only thing inside was dust and dashed hopes. That would have been a terrible movie, but it would have been a lot more true to life.
In 1981, Byron Preiss buried twelve keys around North America, in order to hype his then-upcoming fantasy novel, The Secret. Clues were, naturally, included in the book. But either Preiss was really good or really bad at writing them, because, as of June 2020, only two of the keys have been found. Meanwhile, no one's actually sure if the other ten keys even still exist.
See, Preiss died in a car accident in 2005, and his publisher went bankrupt shortly thereafter, effectively erasing the locations of the keys from the earth. Several hunters are pretty sure there's one in a park in Milwaukee - but 40 years is a long-ass time. The park in question has been changed substantially since Preiss may or may not have buried the key there, and the clues don't necessarily match up to real-world landmarks anymore. It's also entirely possible the container was straight up removed or damaged during renovations.
More nefariously, there's always the possibility that everything about a buried treasure is a steaming load. Numerous folks have leveled suspicions about the existence of Forrest Fenn's two-million dollar bounty -- including veteran treasure-seekers and a reporter who's been covering the story for over a decade -- and the chest's "discovery" didn't exactly alleviate those concerns.
The "finding" of Fenn's fortune was announced by Fenn himself, who declined to offer any further explanation or evidence. All he said was that the man who finally discovered the goods was from "back East," and had sent Fenn photographic proof that the literal treasure chest had been claimed. Fenn did not share the photo, nor divulge where, or even in what state, the gold and jewels had been buried.
The timing also raises a lot of questions. Like, why did this East Coast guy decide to travel across the country now, in the middle of a pandemic? Did he quarantine for two weeks like all out-of-state travelers are supposed to? Did he wear a mask and wash his hands or did he just start touching up forests like an asshole? Never mind that this is all alleged to have gone down amidst scores of protests against police brutality, and the start of a real reckoning with the systemic racism upon which this country was founded. (I mean, it's almost like the discovery was announced exactly when it would draw the least scrutiny.)
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Lawsuits, Scandals, and Native American Appropriation
Fenn's buried treasure has, almost from the very start, raised some eyebrows. For starters, and much like that Kim Kardashian photo from a few years ago, the size of the booty was kind of bonkers. And any time you've got money heavy enough to slow a person down, real or otherwise, people are going to take that shit seriously.
In December of last year, Fenn was sued for $1.5 million by a man from Colorado who claimed that Fenn had "deprived him of the treasure through fraudulent statements and misleading clues." Others have also alleged that Fenn was "deliberately" diverting folks from the treasure chest's location. An Arizona man, meanwhile, recently filed a complaint stating that he had "solved the quest," and that Fenn's ability to actually "give title" to a treasure abandoned in the wilderness was, to use the legal term, horseshit.
That same Arizona man also raised some doubts as to the veracity of the treasure's recent discovery. "[Fenn] just got served with my lawsuit," he told the Santa Fe New Mexican, "and now we have this press release" announcing that the chest had been found. And Fenn's not the only one getting sued over his fortune. A real estate attorney in Chicago alleges that she, too, solved the quest, only to get hacked and beaten to the chest by her alleged hacker. She's filed a formal injunction to stop the unnamed defendant from claiming the treasure.
That, of course, is to say nothing of the fact that, like Indiana Jones before him, Fenn has allegedly made a living stealing historical artifacts from indigenous communities for his own personal gain. He's been accused of raiding the San Lazaro pueblo and hindering the anthropological research being done there. He also had his home searched by federal investigators looking for Native American artifacts said to have been illegally procured -- an accusation which Fenn denies. But, let's be real, the United States government hasn't exactly been great about caring about the things taken from the indigenous peoples of this country. In fact, the feds only seem to get involved in returning artifacts when shit's real bad, so ...
Fenn, though, isn't alone when it comes to inviting scandal. Masquerade was a picture book published in 1979 that kickstarted the whole "armchair" treasure-hunting trend. And it turns out the person who found that original treasure was friends with the ex-girlfriend of the guy who buried it. The illustrator of The Hunt for the Golden Owl, meanwhile, tried to sell the golden owl in question in the early 2000s, on the grounds that no one had figured out the puzzle in 20 years and he needed money. He was sued by treasure hunters -- and he lost. The British courts claimed that the owl belonged to the puzzle-solver who, as of this writing, doesn't actually exist.
There's even headaches around the seeking of the treasures, too. City officials and park rangers across the globe have had to deal with people digging holes across public and private lands for years, greeting them with varying levels of exasperation and stink-eye. Never mind all the rescue efforts made for wannabe treasure hunters that got lost in the wilderness -- or straight-up died.
And then there's the time that a would-be fortune-finder broke into Forrest Fenn's actual home.
Robert Miller, believing he was following Fenn's clues, slipped inside Fenn's Santa Fe abode while Fenn was out. After grabbing a quick beer from the fridge, Miller got to ransacking and found an elaborate Spanish-style chest in a bedroom. Naturally, he grabbed it, thinking he'd solved both the puzzle and all of his financial problems. The chest, though, ended up containing only linens. (A fact Miller didn't discover until after Fenn and his daughter arrived home and held him at literal gunpoint.)
Can Anyone Really Own Anything, Man?
For the sake of argument, let's assume that a purposely buried treasure both still exists and isn't comprised of illegally obtained artifacts or appropriated Incan gold. Let's also assume that it's hidden somewhere that doesn't involve a permit and a park ranger yelling at you, or an old man pointing a gun at your head. What then? You get to just, like, keep the treasure you find, right?
Well, maybe. Legal ownership of buried treasure is ... murky, to say the least. As mentioned earlier, British courts decided that the owner of the hidden fortune at the heart of The Hunt for the Golden Owl is the eventual finder of the buried fake owl, not the guy who actually has the actual golden owl sitting in his attic.
American law, meanwhile, is a little more convoluted. Though "finders-keepers" is largely the actual rule, there's a ton of other factors, too. Or, as one professor of law put it: "These cases are a mess." Distinctions are made between abandoned, lost, and mislaid property -- and buried treasure could be considered any or all of them, depending. The remarkably ambiguous "strength of the claim" is also considered, which could theoretically pit property owners against the children of the person who buried the treasure against the guy who solved the poetry puzzle.
Then there's the fact that there are different rules for different states and, of course, federal lands. And, as this dissection of the Goonies' legal claim to One-Eyed Willie's treasure explains, whether or not there's water involved makes a difference, too.
Oh, and let's not forget that buried treasure is taxable, according to the I.R.S. So much for easy money!
Eirik Gumeny once thought he found a treasure buried in his grandmother's backyard but it turned out to only be a very old horseshoe. He's the author of the Exponential Apocalypse series, which does not include any kind of secret puzzle, but is still a pretty good bunch of books. He's also on Twitter.