SANTA FE, N.M. -

For more than a decade, he packed and repacked his treasure chest, sprinkling in gold dust and adding hundreds of rare gold coins and gold nuggets. Pre-Columbian animal figures went in, along with prehistoric "mirrors" of hammered gold, ancient Chinese faces carved from jade and antique jewelry with rubies and emeralds.

Forrest Fenn was creating a bounty, and the art and antiquities dealer says his goal was to make sure it was "valuable enough to entice searchers and desirable enough visibly to strike awe."

Occasionally, he would test that premise, pulling out the chest and asking his friends to open the lid.

"Mostly, when they took the first look," he says, "they started laughing," hardly able the grasp his amazing plan.

Was Fenn really going to give this glistening treasure trove away?

Three years ago, he lay two of his most beloved pieces of jewelry in the chest: a turquoise bracelet and a Tairona and Sinu Indian necklace adorned with exotic jewels. At the bottom of the chest, in an olive jar, he placed a detailed autobiography, printed so small a reader will need a magnifying glass. After that, he says, he carted the chest of loot, now weighing more than 40 pounds, into the mountains somewhere north of Santa Fe and left it there.

Next, Fenn self-published a memoir, "The Thrill of the Chase," distilling the autobiography and, intriguingly, including a poem that he says offers clues to lead some clever -- or lucky -- treasure hunter to the bounty.

It wasn't long before word of the hidden trove got out, and the publicity has caused a mini-gold rush in northern New Mexico.

But it has also set off a debate: Has Fenn truly hidden the treasure chest or was this, for the idiosyncratic, publicity-loving 82-year-old who loves to tell tales, just another way to have fun, a great caper to bolster his legacy?

One friend, Michael McGarrity, an author and former Santa Fe County sheriff's deputy, acknowledges it could be "a private joke," though he believes "Forrest has certainly buried something." If it was the treasure he saw, well, "it really is quite an astonishing sight to see."

There certainly seems to be no shortage of believers, including Doug Preston, whose novel "The Codex" about a notorious treasure hunter and tomb robber who buries himself and his treasure as a final challenge to his three sons, is loosely based on Fenn's story.

"I've seen the treasure. I've handled it. He has had it for almost as long as I've known him. It's real. And I can tell you that it is no longer in his vault," says Preston.

"I am 100 percent sure that he really did go out and hide this thing. I am actually surprised that anyone who knows him would think he was blowing hot air. It is just not his personality. He is not a tricky, conspiratorial, slick or dishonest person at all."

Fenn says his main goal is to get people, particularly children, away from their texting devices and looking for adventure outdoors.

But probably few are having more fun with the whole adventure than Fenn himself, a self-described schmoozer and endless flirt who is reveling in what he says are 13,000 emails from treasure hunters -- not to mention 18 marriage proposals.

"His net worth is much higher than what he put in the bounty," says Preston, guessing the treasure's value is in the million-dollar range. "He is having way more than $1 million worth of fun with this."

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It all began, Fenn says, more than 20 years ago, when he was diagnosed with cancer and given just a few years to live.

That's when he decided to buy the treasure chest and fill it with some of his favorite things

."Nobody knows where it was going to be but me," he recalls thinking. He revised the clue-poem's wording several times over the years, and made other changes in his plans. For a time, he thought of having his bones with the treasure chest, though how that might have been accomplished is unclear.

"But then," Fenn says with a mischievous twinkle in his blue eyes, "I ruined the story by getting well."

In  "The Thrill of the Chase," he lays out his unusual rags-to-riches story while sharing memories of his favorite adventures and mischief-making.

From the outset, the book tells readers the recollections "are as true to history as one man can average out that truth, considering the fact that one of my natural instincts is to embellish."

Average out the truth? Instinct to embellish? Well, one thing is certain: He certainly knows how to tell a tale.

Fenn was raised in Temple, Texas, where his father was a school principal, according to the book. The family was poor, he says, only eating meat on Sundays if there was a chicken to kill. But, Fenn writes,