Scrapbook One Hundred Twelve…




A friend just sent me an email that was attached to a story from my semi-distant past. It was written by a man from LA who accidentally happened into our gallery. I met him at the door and offered him a cup of coffee. He was full of fun and kept asking questions, the answers to which frequently made both of us smile or laugh.

Fenn employs an impressive antique Hopi Indian basket to collect about $1,000 a year for the Special Olympics fund.

Fenn employs an impressive antique Hopi Indian basket to collect about $1,000 a year for the Special Olympics fund.

In one of our back gallery rooms we paused so he could take my picture standing behind a large Hopi basket. It was so big that no arm could reach the bottom. That’s why we used it to collect donations for the Special Olympics. The bottom six inches was filled with paper money of all dominations, including a few fifties and some hundreds. He laughed when I said we always watch lanky guys from LA who had long arms.

During a leisure lunch his desire to write a story for People surfaced in our casual conversation. I suddenly became apprehensive and sensed that my criterion for immortality was tenuous. “Don’t worry Forrest, it’ll be a love story,” he said.

This is the article as it appeared on June 09, 1986:

Forrest Fenn is a Santa Fe, N.Mex. art dealer with a bustling, eight-room gallery, but one of his most prized acquisitions is a 36-inch alligator, Beowulf, who inhabits a pond on the gallery grounds. In artsy Santa Fe, riddled with some 110 galleries, lots of folks think they detect a resemblance between Beowulf and his owner.

It is an unkind comparison, no doubt the result of professional envy of a colleague who makes big waves and bigger bucks. The controversial and flamboyant Fenn grosses about $6 million a year by flouting tradition. His collection may politely be called eclectic: a jumble of Indian artifacts and curios, mixed with expensive paintings and bronzes. He openly sells forgeries of Modigliani, Monet and Degas, and he gets good money for them to boot. Indignant colleagues grumble, but Fenn doesn’t snap like an alligator; he only smiles like one. He gets most of the celebrity collectors who come to town.

Forrest and wife Peggy get into the act with, "The Hopi Indian Dancers", a five ton sculpture carved from a single piece of limestone by Doug Hyde. It sells for $120,000.

Forrest and wife Peggy get into the act with, “The Hopi Indian Dancers”, a five ton sculpture carved from a single piece of limestone by Doug Hyde. It sells for $120,000.

Charming one moment, gruff the next, Fenn admits that his flair has created a flap. “The art business is like religion,” he says. “You can lose money or break even, but if you make money, you get a dirty name.” That doesn’t sound quite like a definition of religion nor does it appease his detractors. “Forrest is a great promoter,” says Gerald Peters, whose Santa Fe gallery competes with Fenn’s. “He has a marvelous sense of the moment.” Los Angeles gallery owner Steve Rose, who frequently does business with Fenn admires his style but understands why others don’t “For one thing he’s a better merchandiser than most of us,” Rose says “and he makes a lot of money. Most of the dealers who have grumbled about him are small ones who are jealous of his success.”

Fenn makes no claims to the finer things in the art business. A high school graduate who put in 20 years as a U.S. Air Force fighter pilot, he arrived in Santa Fe 14 years ago with a shoe shine, a smile and $20,000 in savings, and set himself up in a business he knew little about. “I never studied art, didn’t own a painting and didn’t know anybody who did,” he says. But the pilot, who says he survived 328 combat missions in Vietnam, is adept at landing on his feet. “It doesn’t matter who you are,” he argues, “it only matters who they think you are. It’s true in Hollywood, in politics and it’s true with a painting.”

Following that principle, Fenn tucked his showrooms off Santa Fe’s main strip and enclosed them behind 11-foot-high adobe-and-stone walls. In addition to the pond, the elegant grounds feature a garden, exotic birds and three guest houses. One of them, attached to the gallery, is stocked with volumes of books, fine wines and $1 million in art. When the rich visit Santa Fe, Fenn scoops them up at the airport in his limo and lodges them free of charge in one of the houses. Jackie Onassis, former President Ford and Cher are among those who have been pampered with catered meals, a Jacuzzi, steam room and a masseuse. Many, notably Steve Martin, have also bought art.

One of Fenn’s repeat customers is Robert Redford, who collects Eric Sloane oils priced up to $15,000. Sam Shepard and Jessica Lange picked up Western art, and Steven Spielberg carted away a Charles Russell bronze. Ethel Kennedy bought an antique Chinese incense burner and raved about it. “One day,” says Fenn, “Andy Williams came in and said, ‘Ethel Kennedy said I just had to come in.’ There were about 50 people in the room and all their eyes went zonk.”

Suzanne Somers met Fenn during a search for a Georgia O’Keeffe painting. “He is an incredible host,” says Somers. “To lie in the bed in that guest house and see the most incredible library and be surrounded by fabulous art and pueblo pottery was a feast.” Guests aren’t obligated to buy, but as one art colleague puts it, “Forrest doesn’t miss a chance.” Nearly everything—furnishings, artwork, baskets—carries a price tag. At the end of her stay, Somers had bought several Navajo rugs and some Indian jewelry. As for starting her O’Keeffe collection, she says, “When I do decide to buy one, it will be from Forrest.”

Fenn encourages gallery browsing with signs that read: “Please touch. We are responsible.” Customers can handle any of 2,000 Indian bowls, moccasins and arrowheads. Big spenders might be drawn to a $375,000 painting that Corot signed on his deathbed, or a $350,000 Remington bronze. Fenn’s collection of fine fakes (owned in partnership with Texas’ ex-Gov. John Connelly) is the work of the late master forger Elmyr de Hory, who fooled many an expert in his time. But why sell phonies? Says Fenn: “If you love it less when you see the signature who now is the fake?” That challenge has shamed buyers into taking 26 De Horys so far, at $9,500 a shot.

Fenn claims an inventory worth $20 million and presides over it all with a staff of 16 and a seemingly cavalier attitude. “Does the guy at One Hour Martinizing love dirty clothes?” Fenn asks, knowing the answer full well. “Does the guy selling used cars like clunkers? Art is a business, and what I love is the business. I’m not particularly into art.”

Fenn, who was born 55 years ago in Temple, Texas, has a bottom-line style that was shaped in the Air Force, where he won 25 decorations, including the Silver Star. Stationed in Lubbock, Texas at the end of his stint, he began buying sculptures from struggling artists and casting limited-edition bronzes of them. Some of the bronzes he sold for cash, but the rest he traded for Indian artifacts. When he was ready for retirement, the hobby provided an inventory for opening an art gallery, which seemed the logical next step.

The business allows Fenn and his wife of 32 years, Peggy, to live comfortably in a spectacularly appointed apartment over the gallery. Fenn collects rare and historical books and takes an occasional day off for a desert walk, fishing or piloting his single-engine airplane. “When I was a kid,” he says, by way of explaining his passion, “I played Monopoly. I have always thought of myself as one who plays Monopoly. That’s what I’m doing here.”

Scrapbook One Hundred Eleven…



The Salvador


If you think Dal is the type who sits at a computer all day long and types then you need to reboot your frontal lobes. Actually, he’s been all over the place.
Crayton Fenn, who is Skippy’s son, and a professional deep-sea diver, sent me a few photos. Since Dal’s face is plastered on most of them I asked him to give me some short descriptions. Instead, he wrote a book. But the stuff is kind of interesting so I begged him to post a couple of stories and illustrate them with the photos.f

Juan Doe, one of about 500 Juan Does on the shipwreck of the Salvador

Juan Doe

This is a photo of neither me nor Crayton. This fellow is one of about 400 who’s bones rest, often unarticulated, in Maldonado Bay on the shipwreck of the Salvador off the coast Uruguay.

If you look closely you can see an old brass button from his shirt just right of center in the picture, just as it was found. His shirt has long since rotted away. Juan rests quietly now but the chaotic moments leading up to his death were anything but peaceful. He was terrified and fighting for his very existence against a terrible storm that unleashed itself on the armed troop ship Salvador in 1812, breaking the ship apart and drowning most aboard.

In Uruguay, the story of the Salvador is entrenched in colorful South American history and lore. This great wooden ship, a hundred and fifty feet in length, carried over 500 war hardened Spanish soldiers as it stealthily approached the coast of Uruguay. Their purpose was to attack and seize almighty control for the mother country and mercilessly put down a growing revolution by the disenfranchised and disgruntled patriots of Spanish South America. If the Salvador and it’s cargo of well trained and tested infantry had reached shore that late summer day over 200 years ago, the face of South America and the lives of those living there would most certainly be very different today. Many Uruguayans considered it nothing short of a miracle that this ship never made it to shore.


The salvage crew enjoying a moment after their first canon lift from the Salvador

I am in the center in the back and Crayton Fenn is next to me on camera right in the blue/green checked shirt. The town of Punta del Este, Uruguay is behind us. Crayton was the leader and operations manager of this project in which we had a contract with the Uruguayan government allowing us to search and salvage in an area known to be riddled with ships from the 15th century to the present and loaded with everything from gold bars to French wines.

In the 19th century, Spanish canons did not have serial numbers. Instead they were each baptized with the name of a saint, typically the name of the saint whose day it was when the canon was “born”. The canon in front of us is named S. Rafael (Saint Rafael). It was created in 1801. S. Miguel and S. Graviel were the next canons brought up. In addition to its name each canon also carries the inscription, “Domingo Soriano Me Fecit”, which means, “Domingo Soriano made me”.

A smaller canon laying on the bottom, just as it was found.

Another canon laying on the bottom, just as it was found.

You can see from this photo how thousands of artifacts were laying on the bottom, as if they had simply “spilled” off the ship yesterday. Of course there were tens of thousands of artifacts hidden under the sand as well. The salvage of the items here was a precise archeological dig, except under water. Artifacts included everything from weapons to buttons to jewelry to coins to crystal wine glasses to medical supplies, there were also the skeletons of nearly four hundred soldiers and sailors who drowned while trying desperately and impossibly to keep their ship from sinking under their feet. Some of the skeletons were still wearing leather boots. Some linen shirts survived and many skeletons had items such as beads or a crucifix circling the neck, coins in their pockets and swords at their sides The Oxford Encyclopedia called the artifacts we found on the Salvador “the most significant collection of Napoleonic era artifacts surviving today”.

A few artifacts from the Salvador

A few silver and brass artifacts from the Salvador


Posing with one of our 200 year old canons

Crayton Fenn on the left and me behind the canon, taking careful aim I guess…

You will note that we are wearing our nice crew shirts and clean socks in this photo. We are coming into the harbor in Punta del Este to unload our first cargo of bronze canons. We heard that a crowd had formed on the dock to meet and greet us. Although we wanted to look sharp for the crowd, we had no idea we were about to be treated like heroes.


We were the lead story in every newspaper and on every news report in Uruguay

Hundreds of folks came down to the dock to see and hopefully touch the canons. When we placed these beautiful relics on the dock, hundreds and hundreds of Punta del Este residents reached out to touch the canons and then make the sign of the cross and bless both themselves and the muzzles. Many Uruguayans believe that it was divine intervention that prevented these deadly weapons from being used against the patriots. They wanted to treat the canons with respect because the artillery pieces “refused” to be used against their ancestors.

For the next two weeks we were not able to pay for dinner in that town. The President of Uruguay and the Chief Admiral of the Navy visited us on our boat and thanked us. It was a humbling experience.


three brass earrings from the wreck of the Salvador

"Surveyor", our research and salvage vehicle built especially for work off the coast of Uruguay.

“Surveyor”, our research and salvage vehicle built especially for work off the coast of Uruguay

This is our 50ft survey vessel, “Surveyor”. She was deigned by Crayton and built in Seattle especially for our work in  Uruguay. That’s Crayton at the helm putting her through test paces and making as much wake as possible before freighting her down to Montevideo.

Crayton next to a treasure chest off a shipwreck

Crayton next to a provocative treasure chest off the Salvador

We didn’t open it until it was on the deck of Surveyor.


Taking pictures in one of the many areas where artifacts were exposed on the bottom

All told, the project here resulted in locating hundreds of historic shipwrecks containing everything from gold to beans, over a period of five years. In the end, the government did not honor their contract with the us. We were never allowed to fully recover the tens of thousands of artifacts that we discovered because policies were amended, governments changed and historical research and recovery became increasingly difficult in South America. As the word “nationalization” began to get louder, the crew loaded up Surveyor with as much research gear as possible and ran as fast as possible up the coast to Rio de Janeiro where Surveyor was placed on a container ship headed for Texas.

In shear volume of discovered shipwrecks and unrecovered historical artifacts this project was a stellar success. However, since the 50/50 agreement with the Uruguayan government was never honored by them, the project was never able to recoup its considerable expenses.

Marine archeological work in South America can be difficult and expensive.


Scrapbook One Hundred Ten…



Marvin Fenn Park


An old buddy sent me this photo. He was right guard on the 1948 Temple high school losing football team. I didn’t make the line-up that year.


I knew there was a park in Temple named for my father but I’d never seen this sign before. The guy who made it is an accomplished poet:




My father would be proud if he knew about this honor, especially since the lake in his park is full of big bass. f