19th-century Levi’s jeans found in mine shaft sell for more than $87,000

A pair of Levi’s jeans from the 1880s has sold at an auction in a small town in New Mexico for more than $87,000.

The jeans — found in an abandoned mine by a “denim archaeologist” — were bought by 23-year-old Kyle Hautner and Zip Stevenson, a veteran of the vintage denim market.

“We didn’t have any plans to buy the jeans together until the auction started, which is kind of insane looking back on it,” Stevenson told CNN.

The jeans were sold for $87,400 — one of the highest prices ever paid for a pair of denims — including a 15% buyer’s premium. Hautner paid 90%, while Stevenson contributed the remaining 10%

Stevenson has run a denim repair shop in Los Angeles for nearly three decades — but he had never found a pair quite like this.

“These jeans are extremely rare — especially in this fantastic worn condition and size,” he told CNN.

Stevenson first heard about the jeans “about five years ago when they were first discovered” in the American West by Michael Harris, who “has looked in at least 50 abandoned mines for five years and has not found a pair of equal quality,” according to Stevenson.

Only a couple of similar pairs exist — but they are kept in museums and too delicate to wear.

<p><span>The slogan "The only kind made by White Labor" relates to the discriminatory Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.</span></p>

@denimdoctors/@ziphtc

The slogan "The only kind made by White Labor" relates to the discriminatory Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882.

This pair, however, “are surprisingly durable, so they definitely can be worn,” Stevenson told CNN. “There’s a couple of soft spots on the jeans that could use a bit of reinforcement but otherwise they’re super-duper solid jeans.”

“I could easily imagine Johnny Depp or Jason Momoa wearing them,” he said.

The auction was held at the Durango Vintage Festivus on the outskirts of the small town of Aztec. The four-day festival is put on by vintage denim expert Brit Eaton — who described finding items like this as “a total addiction.”

“I needed a ‘headliner’ that would rival the music acts I booked. I knew these jeans would be a major draw,” Eaton told CNN.

“I’ve been doing this business for a quarter of a century and the average vintage jeans are worth about $100. So to find a pair this valuable is once in a lifetime.”

Eaton said he didn’t originally intend to sell the jeans, which was why he put them up for this “massive” price. But given their rarity, he said, it was “no surprise” that they were snapped up at auction. “It was super fun to see them sell live to floor bidders,” he said.

While iconic of the American West, the jeans also bear witness to a dark episode in the country’s history. An inside pocket is printed with the phrase “The only kind made by White Labor.” The Wall Street Journal cited a Levi’s spokesperson who explained that the company used this slogan after the introduction of the Chinese Exclusion Act in 1882, which barred Chinese laborers from entering the US. The WSJ reported that Levi’s dropped both this policy and the slogan in the 1890s. The act was repealed in 1943.

What does Stevenson plan to do with the jeans now? “We would consider offering them for sale to an extremely interested private buyer,” he said, but added that the owners would prefer them to be bought and displayed in a museum “such as the Smithsonian or the Metropolitan Museum of Art.”

For now, they’re kept in a safety deposit box near Stevenson’s Denim Doctors store in Los Angeles and are available for viewing by appointment.