Levi Strauss and Company label on blue jeans


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A pair of vintage Levi's sold at auction on Oct. 1, and it's not just the winning $76,000 bid that's turned heads, but the jeans' provenance, the young buyer who snatched them up, and the racism displayed on the label.

The jeans were excavated from an abandoned mineshaft by a so-called "denim archaeologist" who has investigated dozens of mines looking for exactly this kind of treasure. Based on signifiers like a single back pocket, suspender buttons, and a cloth patch on the waistband, the jeans are estimated to be from 1880s and are in surprisingly excellent condition, complete with wax drips from the candles miners would have used to navigate at the time. 

Two buyers went in together on the purchase, which, after the buyer's premium, came to an astounding $87,400. One of them, Zip Stevenson, has owned the Denim Doctors vintage store in Los Angeles since 1994. But he chipped in only 10% of the purchase price. The other 90% came from 23-year-old Kyle Haupert, a vintage fan who's been reselling clothes for years despite his age. He focuses on volume, selling everything he finds, which is presumably how he's amassed his portion of the substantial purchase price. He's hoping that Stevenson will be able to use his connections in the denim world to find a buyer and turn this pair into the ultimate flip.

Gallery: Unusual and Rare Items That Sold at Auction for Serious Money

The Levi's are in such good condition that they look wearable and practically modern. But one dead giveaway of their advanced age is the inclusion of a line of text printed on an inside label: "The only kind made by White Labor." It's the result of an anti-Chinese labor policy adopted by Levi's following the 1882 Chinese Exclusion Act, a law that prohibited all immigration of Chinese laborers for a decade. The company dropped the policy and the slogan in the 1890s, making it easier to definitively date the jeans.

The final exciting minutes of the auction in New Mexico can be seen in a YouTube video that has been viewed hundreds of thousands of times. The seller, Brit Eaton, purchased the jeans five years ago from the man who found them in the mineshaft for only $23,000. He created the ramshackle four-day vintage clothing event and auction as a way to raise money to invest in his own antique clothing business. Considering the Levi's turned out to be some of the most expensive ever sold at auction, he can probably afford to build that warehouse.

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