The Experienced Skinner…

by forrest fenn

Many of the objects in my collection are significant in a very small depiction of world history. Most are more interesting than they are important. Nevertheless, it is necessary for me to remember that each piece represents who we once were in a time that used to be, and that I will never be anything more than its temporary custodian. 


boarOnce, when we were in La Havre, Peggy and I went into a grubby antique shop on the waterfront. Although I was financially underprivileged, just being in that old place made me want to buy something. Maybe it was the ambience of it all.

So I looked around and saw three cannon balls “From Napoleon’s personal collection,” and many souvenirs that were left over from the French Revolution. A few gave me pause: a used guillotine blade, a hangman’s noose with the requisite 13 coils, several experienced peg-legs, and other fiendish French inventions of dim distinction.


Le Havre France

But in a far back room, in a dungony-dark corner I saw an old trunk that just smelled with character. It was as if some terrible Viking had used it for storing things I didn’t even want to know about.

When I raised the squeaky lid the trunk appeared to be empty – and then I noticed a rusty old skinning knife with a character-weathered antler handle. It was covered with dust and must’ve been concealed in that dark place for years and no one knew it was there but me.

An old, yellowed price label said $100.

“Wow,” I thought, this thing probably was used to skin a thousand wolves, wild boar, and chamois.  My desire for it preceded critical acumen so I grabbed the knife and ran up front to the shopkeeper, “I want this knife,” I said. “Sacre’ bleu,” he replied, “Veer deed you geet zee extraordinary antique veapon?” Ha, I was in luck, he didn’t even know what it was.

A small sign on the wall said, “les ventes sont finales”.

I quickly handed the clerk a couple of twenties, some tens, a five or two and a bunch of ones – nearly all the money I had. My wife’s expression said that I should be saving up to buy a padded cell.

As we drove away I developed buyer’s remorse. If that knife had been in a display case in the front of the store with a price of $20, I wouldn’t have wanted it. Then it hit me. That well-seasoned Frenchman got to me with a trick that was the oldest ploy in the history of trading: It didn’t matter how special the knife was, it only mattered how special he could make me think it was.

I wanted to return it and get my money back but I knew that wasn’t going to happen, and besides, I’d have to admit to the sales jerk that he’d outwitted me, and that wasn’t going to happen either.

So I gulped and kept driving, not feeling very cerebral, and not looking at my wife.

But there was some profit in the deal because it provided me with a rule I would remember, “When testing the depth of the water, don’t do it with both feet.” I think that was the rule, but maybe not, I had so many.

In later years I decided that the hundred bucks I paid in 1957 were well spent because bad experiences build character. I just don’t know what I’m going to do with all of this character.


62 thoughts on “The Experienced Skinner…

  1. I seem to remember a painting that should have taught the same lesson, Mr. Fenn. But excellent explanation of the psychology involved on both sides of the trade! Lesson taught, lesson learned !

    • Then, again, there’s always the rule about testing the depth of the water:

      Don’t test the water depth by jumping from the bridge.

      Nor make the alligator mad before the test is logged.

      Nor sign away your soul to the company store.

      As they say in southern Siberia, about all of these things: “what could possibly go wrong, Y’all?”

  2. Fun story Forrest! With your superior talents as a premiere salesman, which you learned well from these experiences, I’m sure you could sell that knife for much more than you paid for it! 🙂

  3. I’ve always shied away from collecting knives. I have no way of knowing their value. That knife looks to me it could be worth thousands. 😉

    Loved the story!

  4. That knife resembles a knife in a story I read awhile ago…

    the Snake Indians had an old knife nearly worn to the back…

    Mr f I could sit around a juniper fire and listen to your stories all night and then some.
    Thank you Sir for sharing them with us…!!!

  5. I like the chest in a dark corner of a room (metaphor) and the knife looks like it is made just like the knife in the compass story

  6. You can hide a treasure very well with that character you have deepened over the years Mr. Fenn.

  7. That fancy French cheese knife would make a noteworthy white elephant gift for any of the upcoming holiday parties we plan on attending.

    Last year I almost ended up with a gentlemen’s ice tray at the work party. Being terrified of being stuck with that manly gift, I found a way to steal the IOU written on yellow paper from the guy who went to Thailand. My laughing buddha is happy I didn’t settle.

  8. Mr. Fenn,

    As a fellow collector I fight with myself over the same battles of sometimes feeling I have been taken. I have a lot of stuff I would not feel honest if I pushed it off on someone else. I guess that’s why a lot of sales people always ask you what you think you can pay for something…maybe it hampers the guilt feeling. I am hoping one day the things I collect will be of importance to someone.

  9. LOL Forrest I think we all have our character items. 🙂 I would enjoy anything you collected if there was a story to go with it. You keep me laughing . 🙂

  10. Forrest sez, “I don’t always peel fruits and vegetables…but when I do…I use a ancient Viking peeling knife that gives ‘The Most Interesting Man in the World’ an inferiority complex.”

    Btw, does that “centuries old” green patina look like it was made by Crayola in real life? Or is it just some kind of camera …lighting …angle …equinox …gravitational lensing …mitochondrial …effect…of some kind? I’m only trying to help.

    I’ll shut up now…before someone starts digging in to some of the things I bought…and sold to myself. 🙂

  11. mr. forrest ,you don’t know what you are going to do with all this character,yes,you are a character,a very funny one,and I wouldn’t want you to ever change.Testing the water,you just might fall in over your head,are you testing us mr. it only mattered how special he could make me think it was, the oldest trick in the forrest what is the color of a daffodil?many colors my dear one.yellow,yellow,yellow and white,white,some orange. many family colors.time is running away. you got me watching for every little the lake at Yellowstone,I got pretty small greens,red,browns ,etc, of pebble rocks.but when they dryed,they were the same color of rocks I was standing on at the shore.I brought them home anyway.they are mine ,for memories.

  12. Peggy seems like a gem to me allowing you be yourself all of these years.

    All you need to do is find someone that is ok with the kind of crazy you are and it can work.

    I’m off to run a half marathon this morning and while it’s not my kind of crazy I run with joy anyway because it helps me get in shape for treasure hunting.

  13. Mr. Fenn, I know you stlll have the knife, did you have it appraised? or did you have the dna in the handle checked? It was a lesson your wife could have told you before you bought it but I credit her with being wise enough to let you learn from experience and love you all the more for it.

  14. Mr. Fenn Instead of a skinner knife it must have been a scammer knife. You have acquired a lot of knowledge in your years on this earth. I know Peggy just let you learn and learn and go with your gut on most of your journeys together over the years. I know a fleamarket, thrift,antique store owner here where I live and he reminds me of you. Everyone calls him Sarge and he smokes a cigar and opens his shop from 5:30 A.M. to 5:30 P.M. six to seven days a week. He will let me hagel with him on the prices and hugs my neck every time I come and has all sorts of goodies I decorate my home with. I collect George and Martha Washington figureines and all of just about any thing that tickles my fancy for collectables and buy in twos!!! I love a set. I have somethings I know are not worth much but I believe some are and need to have them appraised. That knife is a testimony to how you learned your trade and it is a symbol of keeping your self and your family out of hock and to let your buyers give themselves just enough rope to fulfill their own kind of horse trading to acheive that dream of the find of a century. You just kind of hold back and see how full of themselves they are first or see they do not have a clue nor the finances to see past their noses and price and hagle accordingly. I believe your simple ways and honesty, along with your shrud self taught business accumine; has made you who you are today, along with Peggy reeling you back in when you go to far and have to be reminded about he knife incident!! Well played Mr. Fenn. Now back to the chase and all of your scrapbook stories leading us on this awesome journey to find that chest. Are we close is ANYONE CLOSE? More stories please…..MS Girl

  15. Reading your stories brightens my day! They really are special and inspires me to try to become a better story teller. More please!

  16. It didn’t matter how special the knife was, it only mattered how special he could make me think it was.

    i wonder if this references the hiding place 🙂

  17. Cute. Why is it I feel this comment, “It didn’t matter how special the knife was, it only mattered how special he could make me think it was.” is similar to something else you have commented on before… 🙂

  18. Just wondering about the title to this story; is he referring to the knife or the salesman?

    Back in the old Route 66 days a skinner was an unscrupulous salesman selling “nators” (alternators, regulators, etc.), shocks and tires at gas stations. One practice was squirting the shocks with oil and telling the customer they had a blown shock. Shocks especially were very profitable, so they sold a lot of shocks.

    I wasn’t a skinner, never have been much of a salesman, but I could change a set of shocks fast enough to make an Indy pit crew envious. I charged the skinners two bucks a shock, cash……I regularly changed over a hundred shocks in a day, a few days I changed more than two hundred. That was some serious money back in those days, especially for a kid. I justified it by saying I wasn’t the one cheating folks; someone was going to do the work, it might as well be me. Besides, if someone didn’t know any more about their car than that they deserved to be cheated. “If you’re gonna be stupid, you gotta be tough”.

    I liked to think I was an honest, trustworthy, fellow and never was proud of being the fastest shock changer in the west. I’ll admit I did enjoy skinning the skinners.

    I worked hard, got a couple degrees of higher education and became a fine upstanding member of society; then went to work for lawyers. Kind of put everything into perspective, I was right back where I started, skinning the skinners.

    • Good story Goofy! I think Forrest was talking about the salesman skinner type but he does seem to like words that have more than one meaning. 🙂

    • …oh the cruel irony of life.

      “If I traveled to the end of the rainbow as Dame Fortune did intend, Murphy would be there to tell me the pot’s at the other end.” – Ed Koch

  19. Been had and had others……….. Now try watching the hading:)

    1957 $100.00 dollars would be today $844.38

    1970 $20,000 dollars would be today $123,633.42

    • Fenn made $180,000.00 in his bronze business……… 68 thru 71?

      In 1970 that had the same buying power as $1,112,700.80 in 2014.

      Or has he already converted it into today’s dollars?

      Follow the money……………

    • You don’t buy artwork:)

      Try playing with autographs where 70% (according to FBI figures are fake)

      EBay has currently 152,310 autographs for sale. That means about 105,000 are fakes…………

      There are tricks you do to weed out the fraud.

      Beware of “a cop sold me this” “Swear it’s real”

      “It’s real, trust me” (my personal favorite)

      Rather play with art, it’s a slower market harder to fake then autographs and bigger payouts.

      Then again art museums are filled with fakes:)

      • With autographs “context” is really big. Learning the history of the piece is vital.

        Seen a James Dean autograph that was obtained from a contest winner in “A Rebel Without a Cause” She actually was in the movie. So the context was really solid.

        She sold it to the 1st person for $150. Then it went to through 11 other people. The time it reached the 4th person the autograph was at $850. This was the value of the piece.

        This is where it gets really funny. The next 7 sellers played the next guy will pay higher, don’t get caught holding unto the piece.

        By the time it was said and done the 11th owner was at $4500.

        Will take the market years to adjust to that price.

        Point being Fenn has seen all kinds of dealings and behavior which puts him ahead of the learning curve.

        The thing is he might make a mistake yet he can change his whole mental make up really quick and not do that again.

        To me that’s an interesting thing about him.

    • Along with flea markets and e-bay, check the college shows of student work. In the early1980’s my friend sold a hand-built ceramic antelope head with long horns for $500 at the year-end student show. The horns had to be fired separately and attached later, a manufacturing trick probably like ff’s screw-top lids. She was thrilled… $500 seemed like graduation into the profession. Two months later, her teacher showed her a slick Art magazine with a picture ads in the back pages… her antelope head was up for sale at $5,000. Turns out graduation was merely baptism.

  20. Over the years I have dabbled in buying and selling antique glassware.
    So I get it Forrest. Judging from the photo the knife appears to be hand crafted and of some age. Closer examination would possibility reveal more clues as to it’s age. I take it this was a purchase of years ago? All in all it is an interesting conversation piece.

    • Sorry I missed the detail that you purchased the knife in 1957.
      Good news you are the proud owner of a vintage handcrafted french knife. circa 1950’s or earlier.

  21. Honestly, by the looks of it, you have gotten over your buyers remorse. My mother would be a good two years older than you Mr. Fenn, and she had the best eye ever in regards to history or unique finds. She drove my proper father crazy in her pursuits of her passion, history in an unfettered government oversight of today. Pop would be reliving the carnage of the civil war post to post while my mother would be digging for buttons, or we visted Mese Verde before there was even a porta-potty on sight and you could still climb up into the ruins in the 60’s. Mom was looking for artifacts while Dad gave us a history.

    I suppose my passions run deep on both levels. History remains a constant, though much of it has been re-written over the decades, and my mother wanted to hold it and imagine it. In the end, of all the roads less traveled, appreciation of facts, faded in my mother’s ability to imagine to tell a story of a simple artifact gave credence to my imagination. Not death and destruction of a a civil war…or why an entire civilization picked up and disappeared. She always wove a good story about what was positive.

  22. I just loved this story! So engaging. I’ve probably picked up a couple of fakes over the years., but ignorance is bliss! I figure that will be the kid’s problem as I’m never selling any of it.

  23. Mr. Fenn,
    I wouldn’t worry too much about all the character this purchase built; rather think about how many wolves you saved! And that is a good thing from my perspective.
    The Wolf

  24. Has anyone noticed the intriguing common connection between Napoleon and the French Revolution and the statement by Mr Fenn in TTOTC?

    “To be suddenly connected through a rainbow arc of rod and run of line to something as purely wild as God’s own trout produces astonishment at the cellular level and, at least for a moment, blurs the border between man and nature. It is a bond which renews itself time after time and is the addictive essence of the sport.” f

    The Wolf

      • Wolf –

        Now you are talking my language. Yes, Napoleon is in – look up about his dogs. 🙂


        PS – I will give you one back – there are signs all over the area. One has “Covered Wagons” on it. That sign was erected by the “Garden Club” and they grow daffodils and sell them as a charity event. Gardens are important to Forrest you know. There are yellow signs, green signs, brown signs.

        And speaking of all those colors, there are duck races there – for charity.

        • @Wolf, Amy, could it be that simple. A family place with tennis, golf, bike trails, waterfalls, church w/o old biddies, winter activities, not far from wilderness. Hope I have a clew, as months ago I considered This option but ruled out civilization for wilderness.
          This would surprise, as ff has asked rhetorically.

  25. Man…I can hardly imagine a better end to the trail than sitting at a picnic while forrest cuts up a sandwich for me and my dad with that exact knife. I’ve never had a $100 corned beef on rye but I bet it’s absolutely delicious. I can feel it in my bones…my heart burns for that day.

    • Or on a Bench u can eat a sandwich on a Bench
      I bet it’s in a really simple area and we are making this so hard 🙂
      Sometimes when searching I feel blind lol 🙂

      • I like to think it is that simple. 1. Thrill of the Chase
        2. Too far to walk
        3. Bananas: A peculiar story about the roads things take to find their way home.

        if that knife could talk, I’m sure it would have some good stories…and surely there’s a pissed off elk somewhere with some stories itself. I’d gladly pay $150 for either of their biographies!

  26. Jamie

    We just need the poem Right?
    All this other information is just way to much and causes confusion . Not sure if any of it really helps at this time. 🙂 !!!!!

    • NYC marathon…. race on the streets…. Not the subways…. even slow turtles could race….. I doubt they “sprint” to fast to the finish line…. Am I rambling again ? oh well, ” it’s not how fast we run, It’s what we enjoy along the way……..

  27. Sounds like someone else we know……

    Then it hit me. That well-seasoned Frenchman got to me with a trick that was the oldest ploy in the history of trading: It didn’t matter how special the knife was, it only mattered how special he could make me think it was.

    • ZHD #73941 – i suspect they saw him coming long before he even knew he was intending to arrive 🙂

  28. Dal,
    Under the vignette listing is says exceptional and the title on this page, the original title is The Experienced Skinner. Right? 🙂

    • I don’t know JDiggins…But Forrest wrote that…zctually both titles and both stories…..not me…

  29. All,

    I believe this past year we all could have learned a lesson from this story. Some had received what they thought were special private hints from the man himself. Forrest got them with the oldest trick in the book.


  30. The irony here is that if Mr Fenn decided to put that knife up for auction on eBay today with a link to this story I’m sure it would realize a substantial profit.
    Time cures all wounds, including buyer’s remorse.

  31. All of my solves are beginning to remind me of this story. Except instead of finding a knife all I’m finding is a rubber chicken.

  32. ” Then it hit me. That well-seasoned Frenchman got to me with a trick that was the oldest ploy in the history of trading: It didn’t matter how special the knife was, it only mattered how special he could make me think it was.”

    MM, Thanks for reminding me of this story and Fenn’s famous rule of ‘who they think you are’. All the brilliance of his boyhood stories in the Yellowstone area certainly make one think the gold must be there.

  33. Thanks OS2. The problem is “in the Yellowstone area” doesn’t quite give an exact location.

  34. The whole area might might be like the purty knife planted n the trunk. instead of the store window. A lesson of ‘buyers remorse’.

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