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19th Century Levi’s With Racist Branding Strike Gold at Auction

An August 2022 study by Visual Capitalist revealed that an annual salary of $76,000 is now the minimum needed to purchase the median home in the U.S.

But if real estate isn’t your thing, that $76K can also fetch a pair of authentic antique jeans.

That was the amount of the winning bid California-based vintage clothing collectors Kyle Hauper and Zip Stevenson made for the circa 1880s Levi’s that vintage denim hunter Brit Eaton sold at auction at the Durango Vintage Festivus, a first-time, four-day sales and social event sponsored by him, on Oct. 1 in Aztec, N.M. According to published reports, Hauper, whose business is Golden State Vintage, paid 90 percent while Stevenson, who owns the Denim Doctors repair service, store and showroom in Los Angeles, put in the remaining 10 percent.

With the buyer’s premium included, the jeans cost more than $87,000.

Eaton bought them in 2019 for $23,000. They were discovered in an abandoned goldmine in the American West by self-described “denim archeologist” Michael Harris about five years ago.

The ancient pants with a buckle back, 38-inch waist and 32-inch inseam are in good enough condition to be worn. Bits of dripped wax from the prospectors’ candles in the pitch-black shaft are visible on the legs and the jeans have a single back pocket and suspender buttons. (Levi’s did not add belt loops to its pants until 1922.)

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“White Labor” pocket wording

The exterior of one of the front pockets is printed with words saying that the jeans have the “best sewing,” “the “best materials” and the “best finish.” There is also a glaringly racist boast: “the only kind made by White Labor,” a reference to the Chinese Exclusion Act of 1882 which was signed by President Chester A. Arthur and imposed a 10-year ban on Chinese laborers coming to the U.S. The ban was extended for another 10 years in 1892, made permanent in 1902 and not lifted until 1943.

A Levi’s spokesperson told the Wall Street Journal that the White Labor tagline was in keeping with customer beliefs at the time and was discontinued in the 1890s.

The rare jeans are now under lock and key near the Denim Doctors store and can be viewed by appointment.

And while they had a massive price tag, the transaction was not a record breaker. Daniel Buck Auctions of Maine sold a 125-year-old pair of Levi’s for nearly $100,000 in May 2018 to an anonymous collector while another pair from 1888 previously sold for six figures.

Levi Strauss & Co., founded in 1873, will mark its 150th anniversary next year.