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Jeans Plucked From $100 Million 1857 Shipwreck Sell for $114K

A pair of Gold Rush era denim pants recovered from the so-called “Ship of Gold” sold for plenty of gold in Reno, Nev. earlier this month.

The miner’s pants, which were preserved in a trunk pulled from the 1857 shipwreck of the S.S. Central America off the coast of North Carolina, fetched $95,000. With the buyer’s premium of $19,000 on top, their total price was $114,000—a probable record for a single pair of jeans.

The final bid by the anonymous winner who attended the auction in person was well above the estimated price of $50,000 and the starting price of $25,000.

The S.S. Central America, which was traveling from Panama to New York and loaded with 30,000 pounds of Gold Rush–mined gold with a numismatic value of more than $100 million, sank in a hurricane and was discovered 7,200 feet below the surface by treasure hunter Tommy Thompson in 1988. Of its 578 passengers and crew, 153 survived the disaster and the loss of all the gold sparked a financial panic at banks nationwide.  

A pair of jeans from 1857 fetched $114,000 at auction
The $114,000 jeans Courtesy

The well-preserved pants were packed in a trunk that belonged to merchant and Mexican-American War veteran John Dement, a first-class passenger who was one of the last two people to be pulled from the ocean alive. He, and much of the cargo, began the journey on another ship from San Francisco to Panama. Once there the people and freight took a train across the pre-canaled Panama isthmus and then boarded the doomed steamer.

Although the pants have no branding, Fred Holabird, president of Holabird Western Americana Collections, the auction house for the sale, has done extensive research and believes they were manufactured or at least distributed by The Levi Strauss Company, which was a highly successful dry goods business at the time. If true, and there is not enough solid evidence to prove it absolutely, they would be the oldest known pair of Levi’s in the world and pre-date Strauss’ and Jacob Davis’ famous 1873 patent for workpants with reinforced rivets by 16 years, the 150th anniversary of which Levi’s will celebrate in 2023.

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“The five-button fly is nearly identical, if not technically identical, to Levi’s of today, inclusive of the exact style, shape and size of the buttons themselves. We do not believe this to be a coincidence,” read the official description of the item, the original color of which is not known because the fabric was stained by the trunk and its other contents that included collars, bow ties, a handkerchief, scarves, dress shirts, long underwear, socks, an overcoat, a vest and logoed wool work shirts by Brooks Brothers, which was founded in 1818.

Most of those items were also sold in the auction. Two of the three recovered Brooks Brothers shirts were offered and earned $3,240 and $1,320 respectively.

Historian Tracey Panek, director of Levi Strauss & Co.’s archives, told AP that the ship’s artifacts are of interest to the San Francisco-based company “but stories about pants in the Dements’ trunk being made by the company are speculation.”

Speculation or not, Holabird and his co-authors unearthed some fascinating information about Levi Strauss & Co. in their research, in which they tracked recorded gold shipments from the time. “Levi’s company grew at a remarkable rate. In those two years from 1857-1858, the reported Strauss gold shipments averaged a whopping $91,033—just under $100,000 per shipment,” they wrote. This made the company the sixth largest shipper of gold in the U.S., surpassed by five others that were all banks.

They added, “Since we know Strauss had started manufacturing goods in 1857, did he contract to have these pants made by either a Western or Eastern factory? Did he cause them to be made at a factory with full clothing production devoted to his company? We may never know the absolute origin of the pants. But the data strongly points not only to Strauss as the seller, but possibly as the maker. The key takeaway from the new research is unmistakable: Levi Strauss was the first mass-marketing company in California that set a new standard of sales at the time when his only comparable monetary competitors were banks. He created a new business model that worked to perfection.”

“Those miner’s jeans are like the first flag on the moon, a historic moment in history. We can precisely date them because we know the Central America sank during a hurricane in the Atlantic Ocean on Sept. 12, 1857. There are no earlier five-button fly jeans in existence,” said Dwight Manley, managing partner of the California Gold Marketing Group, consignor of the recovered artifacts.

Fabric detail of the jean

In the early 1990s a robot salvaged the Dement trunk from the sea floor and another one owned by wealthy newlyweds Ansel and Addie Easton who were heading to New York for their honeymoon. The Eastons also survived the sinking and their recovered possessions include men’s dress pants and a pair of cutoff shorts that Holabird believes Ansel may have crafted as a makeshift bathing suit as the ship began to take on water.

The clothes in both trunks managed to stay preserved since the anaerobic condition of the water at the site did not allow for bacteria to form and decay them.

In all, the over eight-hour auction of the sunken treasures, which also included jewelry, a china coffee cup, four beer bottles and a Colt pocket pistol among its eclectic 270-lot assortment, earned nearly $1 million and drew more than 7,500 registered bidders from the U.S. and six other countries.

A second auction of the ship’s artifacts will be held Feb. 24-26, 2023 in Reno.

The sale of the antique jeans is the second such one to make headlines this year. In August collectors Kyle Hauper and Zip Stevenson spent more than $87,000 for a circa 1880s Levi’s pair of jeans that was discovered in an abandoned gold mine about five years ago and that has racist messaging on one of its pocket liners that reflects the popular anti-Chinese sentiment of the time.

It’s likely that the sale of the shipwrecked pants broke the record for the amount spent on a jean. 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,” though the exact amount has never been revealed.