The Realest Pair of Jeans

In a hype-fueled industry, how much you can get for your Levi’s depends on how good a story you’re telling.

The “mine-found” Levi’s at the Los Angeles bank vault where they’re being held. Photo: Adali Schell
The “mine-found” Levi’s at the Los Angeles bank vault where they’re being held. Photo: Adali Schell
The “mine-found” Levi’s at the Los Angeles bank vault where they’re being held. Photo: Adali Schell

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When Larry McKaughan was coming up in the ’80s, the golden rules of denim were simple: Work hard. Don’t poach customers. Don’t rip people off — not too badly, anyway. And never reveal your sources. “It was a little bit rough-and-tumble. A fistfight was not uncommon,” says 68-year-old McKaughan, who is known as the King of Vintage and sells mid-century and earlier pieces from his collection, Heller’s Café. Originally, McKaughan was drawn to the grit, the grind, and the reverence for a bygone American era. “My father was a machinist. He used to come home and sweat metal,” he says. “Clothing had to represent the values. It had to be durable. It had to be strong. It had to last.”

Back then, denim dealing was a closed network of history-obsessed scroungers and deep-pocketed collectors in Japan. The story goes like this: Post–World War II, occupying U.S. soldiers began upselling their blue jeans abroad. One collector estimated that more than 70 percent of vintage American denim, including Levi’s, is currently owned by private Japanese collectors, a statistic that is included in an official brand press release from 2016. “The first guy who told me about vintage denim swore me to secrecy,” McKaughan says. “There were so few people in the United States at that time that knew about vintage denim.”

The demystification came in waves. First, eBay put the open-air marketplace online in the mid-’90s. “Before, you had to know somebody. You had to get on the road to go meet people and find stuff,” McKaughan says. Then, apps like Depop, Poshmark, and Instagram turned anyone with access to a thrift store or an estate sale into a would-be reseller overnight. It didn’t take long for the once-secretive specialty to become a garden-variety side hustle for cash-hungry gig workers. When chef Carmy in The Bear is short on money, he turns to — what else? — his collection of vintage Levi’s. “This is original, big-E, redline selvedge, all right? From 1944,” he says knowingly. “You can get $1,250 for that on eBay, tonight.” Jeans are now a cornerstone of the booming global resale market, expected to be worth $350 billion by 2027.

With an unprecedented number of sellers who know their big from their little E’s — from 1936 to 1970, Levi’s was spelled in all caps on the red back-pocket tab — top-tier denim hunters have been forced to specialize. Some have a taste for jeans from a certain era; New York-based denim consultant Monique Buzy-Pucheu prefers 1890s to 1930s pieces. Others focus on deadstock, product that never sold in the first place (maybe a store went bankrupt or a box was never opened). But scarcity is the most reliable driver of valuation, and of all rare denim, the supply of original 19th-century Levi’s is almost comically limited. Early manufacturing runs were small by modern standards, distribution was mostly national, and a fire after the 1906 earthquake in San Francisco wiped out much of the brand’s warehouse, including the company’s materials and records dating back to 1866. Many pairs were destroyed in daily use — and employed for things like padding packages and insulating homes.

It’s not uncommon for a rarely traded jean to come on the market and sell in the upper five figures. In 2018, someone reportedly paid nearly $100,000 for a pair of 125-year-old Levi’s found preserved in a trunk. The original owner, an Arizona shopkeeper named Solomon Warner, “survived being shot by Apache Indians in 1870,” according to the Associated Press.

Last fall, even older jeans surfaced when a well-known reseller named Brit Eaton unloaded a pair of “mine-found,” one-pocket buckleback Levi’s from the 19th century, which he insisted were “most likely the oldest Levi’s that have ever sold at a live auction.” Yes, “mine-found.” In recent years, a small group of self-proclaimed denim “archaeologists,” armed with little more than headlamps and hubris, has begun rappelling into abandoned silver mines hoping to score denim left behind after a shift, a practice one denim miner speculated might have been instituted to minimize bullion theft. “Several of these guys changed the business in that they unearthed pieces that were not commonly traded,” McKaughan says. “They literally put their lives on the line.”

Each big sale prompts a flurry of headlines — and further agitates fissures in a business that was once guided by expertise, reputation, and working-class margins. Perhaps no single pair has chafed quite like Eaton’s 19th-century Levi’s, which brought out the eye-rolling skeptics.

“It’s the three-card monte of denim,” says consultant Christine Rucci, a former RRL Ralph Lauren designer. “You wanna see a jean that’s found in a mine? They are disintegrated,” she says, holding up shredded denim pockets and waistbands to her computer camera. “Everyone’s got a hustle. A shtick. A scam.” Eaton says otherwise. “Those jeans are legitimate — end of story,” he says. “I’m the only one in the world, or one of a handful of people in the world, that is gonna recognize that kind of a rarity.”

Depending on whom you ask, the jeans are either an investment or an invention. And in a self-policing industry chronicled only by its own, the line between the two is intractably, perhaps intentionally, blurred.

Brit Eaton on a denim-hunting expedition in 2008. Photo: Josh Sims

Eaton picks me up from the Durango–La Plata County Airport in southwestern Colorado, where he has lived since his “car broke down” nearly 30 years ago. Eaton, who is 53 and built like a fridge, has come from ice-hockey practice. Rotting gear — along with Home Depot receipts and Chewy Bar wrappers — litters the floor of his silver 2016 Mercedes-Benz Sprinter van. On the rear doors, a spray-painted brontosaurus clutches a tiny pair of blue jeans in its elegant mouth.

Eaton has been buying and selling jeans since 1997, when he was first bitten by the “blue virus.” He has blustering confidence and a propensity for finding exceedingly rare jeans in unexpected places — both of which have made him a star in the business. In pursuit of the real deal, Eaton has begged his way into old farmhouses, scavenged junkyards, even rappelled into abandoned mine shafts. “I’m basically self-taught for everything I do,” he says. “My record’s 1,000 feet down.” He has a junker’s sensibility; jeans are but one sliver of his heaping empire. Everything he unearths, whether it’s an old pocket or a tattered waistband, is potentially for sale. “Brit is notorious for selling these pieces that are just like threads of a garment,” says Drew Heifetz, a vintage dealer, podcaster, and industry chronicler. “If we find something completely trashed, a garment hanging on by a thread or a shirt that’s missing an arm, we call it ‘a Brit piece.’”

Eaton first parlayed his success as a word-of-mouth reseller into a brick-and-mortar store in Durango that he named Carpe Denim. Over time, his hard-won collection became the blueprint for New York–based design houses keen to replicate heritage pieces for their lines. “I did a quarter-million dollars a year selling to Ralph Lauren and the Gap and Levi’s. Abercrombie & Fitch was a huge one. I had, like, ten different designers from Abercrombie I worked with,” he says. Eaton is the connect, the guy with the good shit, the showman, but his influence halts at the point of sale. “When I pick something up and I’m like, ‘Oh my gosh, I love this wash,’ Brit’s like, ‘What are you gonna use it for?’” says former J.Crew denim director Marie Barbera. “He is thinking more of these pieces as collectors’ items and for personal wear than for reproduction in a modern way.”

In 2008, the New York Times described Eaton as “a study in rugged masculinity in his head-to-toe old work clothes” and supplied a nickname that stuck: Indiana Jeans. “Perhaps the closest we’ve got to a fashion archaeologist,” the story suggests. When the short-lived National Geographic series The World According to Jeff Goldblum needed a charismatic denim miner to take the slinky movie star into an abandoned mine shaft, producers called on Brit. He has a politician’s bag of stories to confirm his own legacy. Ralph Lauren, he says, once named a jean after him. (“We’re not able to verify,” a Ralph Lauren spokesperson said, “as we don’t keep these types of records.”) A single pair he sold to a designer for Nordstrom’s PRPS label became the basis for the retailer’s much-ridiculed $425 pre-muddied “Barracuda” straight-leg. “They’re not even fashion,” Dirty Jobs host Mike Rowe seethed on Facebook. “They’re a costume for wealthy people who see work as ironic — not iconic.” Eaton loved that one. “It was the best thing in the world for my customer that Mike Rowe went and had a sissy fit, a pissy fit, about it,” he says.

But the 19th-century Levi’s have become his most famous pair, and those he didn’t actually discover. They were found by Michael Harris, an Orange County, California–based commercial painter and beekeeper who has become a preeminent scholar in the world of old jeans. “The first time I dug up some vintage denim, I had no idea what it was worth. It just looked like some old rags,” he told The Guardian. Harris, who wrote the historical coffee-table book Jeans of the Old West, unloaded the pants to Eaton for around $23,000 in 2018 as part of a larger deal. “At the time I bought ’em, I was paying top dollar,” Eaton says. “I’m critically, acutely, almost proprietarily aware of how difficult it is to find a pair of jeans in a mine. Therefore, when one comes on the market, I try to buy it.”

The drive from the airport to the nine-acre property housing Eaton’s vast vintage collection is a Dramamine-worthy 15 minutes. Along the way, Eaton identifies things I should admire, like a peeling Native American reservation sign on the side of the highway and a “three-hole shitter” perched on the edge of a mountain. “I’ve been in it!” he shouts over the roar of the van rumbling down Highway 550. “You poop and it goes down, like, a thousand feet. It’s the real deal.”

On a hairpin curve in an avalanche-prone stretch of road known as the Million Dollar Highway, something catches his eye. He slows down to get a better look at a young man holding a yellow sign printed with the word SLOW. “Is there something you need?” the man asks. “I was pushing you guys through.” Eaton wastes no time. “What’s that, uh, sweatshirt?” he starts, leaning across the passenger seat for a better look. “Whaddya got on your arms there? You got the dancing bears?” The man looks confused, then down at the tie-dyed hoodie pulled tight across his belly. “Oh,” he says, slightly raising his fluffy blond eyebrows. “Just a little Grateful Dead sweatshirt.” Eaton scans the well-worn garment — hand-dyed, stained black at the wrists, and from a recent (forgettable, post–Jerry Garcia) tour. No deal. “Nice,” he says, his flinty brown eyes already back on the snaking road ahead. “That’s sick.”

“Well,” the man says with a small, confused shrug. “You guys are good to go.”

Eaton’s property is scattered with silos, coops, and freestanding structures. Everything is a project — or a potential revenue stream. “Down here, there’s gonna be a conference center. And then yurts, like a retreat, like a yoga place here,” he says, gesturing to a small clearing of land by the Animas River. He shows me the spot where rafting companies install docking rigs for $300 a day and the old couch on cinder-block stilts where he drinks “the coldest beer in Colorado.” Each structure is filled, floor to ceiling, with boxes, racks, and piles of vintage clothing. From a closet he shares with his wife, Kelly (the couple has two teenage children), he pulls jerseys he made for his high-school hockey team and a lace-up indigo-dyed shirt from the 1870s, which he calls “the fucking greatest thing ever.” There is no system. Some boxes are just labeled UNREAL or KILLER SHIT.

At one point, we are walking up the side of a hill so steep I grasp for exposed roots. At another, I am left to mind four Australian-shepherd-mix puppies while my host puts a cauliflower-crust pizza in the oven. Every now and again, a goat sprays pellets from beneath its shuttlecock tail. I meet a rooster named Thorax with a fucked-up foot and let myself into a mining building Eaton says he paid $25,000 to relocate after a shoot for Playboy.

“Oh shit,” he says, while showing me a 1966 Scooby-Doo Ford Econoline parked in the middle of a hangar-size warehouse with WWII memorabilia dangling from the rafters. “My pizza’s ready.”

When we sit down in matching brown leather swivel chairs in a sunroom lined with vintage leather chaps, he tops his slices with thick slabs of precut Cracker Barrel cheddar cheese. “This pizza comes pretty plain,” he explains. “I spiced it up with some Sriracha,” which he pronounces suh-RAH-chee. “Here’s something you should do a big fucking article on,” he says between bites. “Why the fuck are kids allowed to have their cell phones in the classroom?” Outside, a goat kicks a dog out of an Adirondack chair. “Look,” he says excitedly, “see this pecking order?”

In his cluttered home office, Eaton shows me old GoPro videos on his PC. In one, he’s wearing a headlamp and throwing stones at a rattlesnake, then rattlesnakes, blocking his path in what appears to be an abandoned mine shaft. “I don’t want to kill ’em,” he explains, “but I have to kill ’em if I’m going to keep exploring.” In another, he’s blindly digging through an underground rat’s nest looking for treasure. (“He has a lot of stories. Some of them are tall tales, let me tell you,” says his mother, Landis Eaton. “But he has had an awful lot of adventures and misadventures.”)

Onscreen, a triumphant, rat-shit-covered Brit holds up a pair of decrepit pants. “Anybody watching this would think this is fake,” he says. “Haters on the internet will be like, ‘Oh, that was planted.’ Look at this,” he says. “Look at this fucking shit. How do you fake this? I sold that pair for 20,000 bucks.”

“Whoa!” I say, truly impressed.

“Yeah,” he says, similarly awed. “No. Oh no,” he says, squinting at the screen. “I still have this pair. Sorry, I still have the pair.”

As the number of denim hunters has multiplied, demand for an OG denim archaeologist has shrunk considerably. “They may be still spending the same money, but it’s just the money’s more spread out,” Eaton says. “Before, they’d have to come to a guy like me, and there were only ten people like me. Now there’s thousands of people selling on Instagram.” Eaton says he hasn’t sold to Ralph Lauren in three years.

That financial uncertainty, and renovations in Durango, sparked an idea that snowballed. “It wasn’t like, I’m gonna have a Festivus,” Eaton says of what became a three-day “Woodstock of Denim” at which he auctioned off the 19th-century Levi’s. “It was more like, Oh shit, I have a million-dollar bill to pay for my new warehouse. How could I do that? I’ll have a big sale. I’ll sell some stuff.

The name and the slogan of the event — “For the rest of us” — were ripped directly from Seinfeld, but Eaton liked the inclusive message. “We’re not douchebag elitists about who we’re gonna let come to the Festivus. We’re saying, Hey, you know what? Unless you’ve proven to be a thief or you have an absolutely horrific reputation, we’re gonna let anyone in,” he says. “You don’t have to be the hoity-toity guy who’s best friends with Ralph Lauren’s top buyer to get into our show.”

The marketing, and the anti-Establishment messaging, was a dog whistle for a hungry younger generation. Kyle Haupert, an online reseller who flips product on IG, attended because he thought “it was going to be the Fyre Festival of vintage,” he later told The Wall Street Journal. Haupert built a loyal following online with his own Gen-Z brand of self-mythologizing during COVID lockdowns. With thrift stores shuttered and group meetups paused, Haupert and his friends started going into abandoned houses in search of new items — and filming their hauls. In one clip, set to Canned Heat’s Woodstock anthem “Going Up the Country,” he and a buddy hunt for clothing as if it were a video game. We never see their faces, only tattooed wrists and ringed knuckles rummaging through trunks and overstuffed dressers to reveal their dust-caked contents. The frame cuts from the waterlogged remnants of a bathroom to a blanket-lined denim jacket pulled from a wooden chest. A dirt-crusted navy-blue University of Virginia “afterhood,” an outdated method of stitching a hood onto an existing crewneck, elicits yawps of pleasure.

Haupert, 24, grew up in Los Angeles County in the aughts, where he spent idle hours perusing garage sales with his antiquer dad. “I did not come from a rich family,” he says. “I’m the very opposite of that.” In high school, he began checking Depop for clothes that better fit his slim frame. “I always cared about how I dressed and how I looked. I liked to have my own style, and I liked clothes.” In the past few years, Haupert has become a staple at the famous Rose Bowl Flea Market, where he travels in a pack of similarly drawn, sharp-elbowed characters, all of whom competitively flip old clothing for a living. “My closest friends are the people I sell vintage with,” he says. “We push each other to go harder. That’s what makes it fun.”

The “bando” missions have quickly become a new third rail in an industry forever trying to reinvent its inventory. “We’ve gone from ‘mine finds’ to abandoned buildings,” McKaughan says. “Where do we go from there? Are we going grave robbing?” Haupert has heard it all. He also knows that rules are invoked only when someone breaks them too loudly. “People say, ‘They’re trespassing, breaking and entering,’ whatever they want to say. But they don’t see that we’re saving stuff that’s gonna be thrown away or destroyed. We’re giving this stuff a new life,” he says. “And we’re not doing the work that we do to just give shit away.”

Last September, denim hustlers of all generations attended Eaton’s first-ever Durango Vintage Festivus at the Tico Time River Resort RV park in Aztec, New Mexico. Haupert and his buddies drove the 12 hours from San Diego to be there. Larry McKaughan, Marie Barbera, and Drew Heifetz also came, along with Eric Schrader from the 2017 jeans documentary Blue Gold. Barbera considered it an opportunity to raid Eaton’s expansive collection. “I think the appeal of everyone going was like, ‘Hey, Brit’s gonna pull out some stuff that he forgot he had,’ ” she says. A group of East Coast heads also came to shop. “All these New York kids rolled up to the festival with wads of cash. They were, like, 22 years old. I’m like, Who are these people? Where do they come from?” Barbera says. “They spent, like, 20 grand the first night.”

Others came just to see “the Jeans.” Listed as “1885–1892 One Pocket Levi’s” and “mine-found” in the official Durango Vintage Festivus auction catalogue, they have only one back pocket, a style the brand abandoned after 1901, and a buckle-back waist instead of belt loops because belts weren’t yet widely used. An interior pocket bag bears the brand’s Chinese Exclusion Act–era slogan, “The only kind made from white labor.” There are tarnished copper rivets, deep whiskers of wear around the knees and pockets, and a color-matched patch whipstitched to one leg. Their entire front is covered in 150-year-old candle-wax spatter.

Eaton, who adopted the persona “MC Festivus” for the occasion, hopped atop a wooden podium wearing a stiff denim button-down, destroyed khakis, and a puffy conductor’s hat. For several minutes, he spoke about his great-great-grandfather Luzerne Britten Eaton, a grubstaker in Nevada. Then, in the next breath, he said, “I’m still waiting for the call from the Met” — meaning the Metropolitan Museum of Art was planning a bid — “but the dude’s asleep in Paris. What’re you gonna do?” The crowd chuckled. It felt a little far-fetched, but you really never know with Eaton. Next to him, an auctioneer dressed like a rancher wove the microphone cord through his knuckles like a cattle lead. It had been a long three days at the Festivus, and one can enjoy only so many Truly spiked seltzers before dusk. “I never wanted to sell these, by the way,” Eaton continued. “I only put them in the auction for … what? Who knows what?”

His teenage daughter, seated toward the back and filming from her iPhone, took the bait. “Publicity!” she deadpanned.

“She’s got it!” Eaton said with a Cheshire-cat smile. “Publicity. For the Festivus. I did it for the freaking spirit of the Festivus.” A few people cheered. Someone cracked a fresh Truly.

The bidding began at $50,000. “We all know the pedigree on these beautiful jeans, but let’s go over it one more time,” the auctioneer spun. “1885–1892 one-pocket Levi’s, 36-inch waist, 30-inch inseam … Mine-found jeans, guys. This is a once-in-a-lifetime opportunity. Let’s buy now.”

At $62,500, a man in a white rollneck sweater and a Beatles haircut bailed. Eaton whispered something in his ear, but it made no difference. “I’m done,” the man said, shaking his head. “I’m done.” The auctioneer reminded him, “The Met will call you and pay you more than that tomorrow,” and Rollneck reconsidered. “All right,” he said, “$65,000,” which happened to meet the item’s reserve price.

People hooted and hollered. Eaton did a happy dance across the front row. A triangle chimed in the near distance.

Wearing duck camo, Buzy-Pucheu, who recently spent five years consulting for Alexander Wang, summoned the handler. “Come here,” she implored, clapping her hands impatiently. Buzy-Pucheu took one look at the jeans and lifted her paddle: $67,000. As she celebrated in her seat, in the row directly behind her, Zip Stevenson, a veteran L.A.-based clothing-store owner whose clients include Brad Pitt and Jason Momoa, lifted one meaty hand, revealing a hole in the armpit of his tattered gray long-sleeve. “I’m partnering with someone,” he said, nodding toward Haupert.

Buzy-Pucheu soon went up to $75,000, and Stevenson came right back — bam — $76,000. She was stunned. “Who the — ” she asked before tossing her paddle to give Stevenson the middle finger. “Let him take it,” she snarled. “You fucking take it, motherfucker.”

“Going once, going twice,” the auctioneer said. “And we’re sold!”

“They kind of prolonged the ‘going once, going twice’ thing. I got a little bee in my bonnet about that,” Buzy-Pucheu told me later. “I licked my wounds after — I did.”

Haupert laced one thin, tattooed arm around Stevenson. His silver rings glinted under the flashing lights. The final sale price — including the 15 percent buyer’s premium fee — was $87,400. He agreed to pay 90 percent, more than $78,000. Stevenson pressed the jeans to his chest and snapped a selfie.

“It’s a Festivus,” Eaton shouted. “For the rest of us!” the crowd hollered back.

  1. Kyle Haupert and Zip Stevenson with the jeans at Inspiration LA.

  2. Vintage enthusiasts.

  3. Yohei Arai and family.

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As Eaton predicted, the sale made the news — and caused a stir among detractors online. Every article published reinforced the rare jeans’ hagiography: “Like a Pollock canvas,” The Wall Street Journal piece begins, “the pants legs are speckled in wax from the candles miners employed to light the way.” Fox Business called the jeans “an artifact of the nation’s troubled history,” while NPR ran a piece about the anti-Chinese-labor interior pocket, which included a mea culpa from Levi’s: “Across our history, we have strived to do good in and beyond our business and to be a positive force for equality and racial justice,” a brand spokesperson said. “There have been times when we’ve fallen short.” Stevenson pinned the article to his Instagram with some pride; he grew up listening to NPR. Many dealers were shocked by the union of an upstart like Haupert and an established player like Stevenson. “You never really know who’s holding the bag, who’s holding the cash,” Heifetz says.

At Hollywood Trading Company, his shop located on a stretch of blanched Downtown Los Angeles, Stevenson tells me he got a “smoking deal” on the jeans, of which there “might only be ten or less of this quality that are this old or older,” he estimates. Of his unlikely partnership with Haupert, he says, “Kyle had the wherewithal but not the confidence. I had the confidence but not really the wherewithal at the moment.” A young sales associate with auburn ringlets, Audie Mayhue, brags that he got to hold the jeans multiple times. “They just have an aura to them,” he says. “I’m not gonna lie.”

In Stevenson’s appointment-only store at 1 p.m. on a Monday, the customers include a very handsome bartender at a members-only L.A. club, a commercial stylist, and a 36-year-old consultant from Tokyo named Yohei Arai who fell for vintage in the early aughts when he “had no money.” (Arai doesn’t speak English; Stevenson translates where he can during the visit.) Today, he will buy a blanket-lined Levi’s jacket from the 1950s for $10,000. “I think it is amazing and valuable that denim from nearly 100 years ago still exists in a wearable condition,” he later says via email. “It is a wonderful experience to be able to have the ‘real thing’ and wear it on a daily basis.” Another of Stevenson’s regular customers, Kelly Virchow, a 58-year-old consultant who sold his family’s commercial-truck-repair company in 2021 and has been buying jeans from Stevenson for over a decade, says he likes how the clothing reflects the passage of time. “I think, for me, wearing a 1960s pair of big-E redline jeans, it’s got the patina, it’s got maybe some paint marks on it. The little pockets are worn,” he says. True vintage lovers tend to be obsessive, idealistic, and perhaps a little damaged, just like the product. “It’s a passion. It’s a sickness,” says Buzy-Pucheu. Offers McKaughan, “Having to have something is kind of an addiction, right?” I ask Virchow which personality trait unites all denim junkies, and he struggles a little. “I want to give a really cool answer, and I don’t really have a cool answer,” he says. “I think it just clicks. I think it’s just, you walk in and you go, Wow, Daddy’s home. I love this.

At Hollywood Trading Company, the conversation eventually turns back to the 19th-century jeans. Despite being a minority investor, Stevenson is calling the shots. He plans to wait to sell, he says, on the advice of some trusted associates. “You can try to sell right away but only up incrementally,” he explains. “If you hold on to it for a couple years, you can kind of redefine the value.”

Not everyone is so certain. Former RRL designer Rucci, who often punctuates her posts with #BlueTruth, is a vocal critic of the jeans. “What do you do when you’re in a depression? You make propaganda. You make marketing, and you get people to believe, Wow, that’s an old jean,” she says. “If it was that old, Levi’s would’ve bought it. It would not have been at an auction.” At one point, Rucci leaves me an impassioned voice memo dripping with a native New Yorker’s disdain: “The best-of-the-best dealers all agree. This was staged. The jean’s not that old. And these are bit players trying to get into the spotlight.”

Eaton has a response for everything. He denies that the auction was staged or that the jeans are an expertly soiled reproduction. He tells me The Wall Street Journal, which reported that the jeans had been “found in an abandoned mineshaft in the American West,” failed to fact-check its reporting with him specifically. (A spokesperson for The Wall Street Journal said, “We stand by our reporting.”) When I point out that the word mine-found was featured heavily in official Festivus event materials, Eaton ties the Ouroboros knot tighter. “I don’t know where the jeans were found,” he says, “because I didn’t find them.”

Michael Harris, the antiquer who originally discovered the jeans, declined an interview and would say only, “We don’t give information about the location we find jeans.” Since talking to The Guardian in 2015, he seems frustrated with the way he was portrayed in the first-person article, titled “I Mine for 100-Year-Old Jeans.” He stopped giving interviews “years ago,” he says.

Eaton seems similarly done with capital-I institutions and vehemently denies inventing the interest from the Met. “I think some people thought that I was making it up, but I wasn’t at all,” he says. “I have a feeling that they think there was some sort of collusion between me, Kyle, and Zip.” Later, Eaton conferences me in with a client-support associate from LiveAuctioneers, the platform that hosted the sale, who provides a screenshot of the evening’s bid log, which includes the winning bid of $76,000 and then one more: a bid for $80,000 that was logged seconds later but ignored. The bidder’s email domain: A Met spokesperson also confirmed that, though the asleep-in-Paris bit was “absolutely incorrect,” the museum had been “at one point interested in the jeans.” Eaton laments that his friend who served as auction clerk and failed to notice the bid “completely screwed me out of another $10,000.”

When I ask Eaton whether he really got paid $76,000 for a single pair of jeans, he flushes. “Let me make it very, very clear. Very clear. On the record,” he says. “I am not gonna live to my full life expectancy because of what I do every day to build my collection. I won’t live to my full life expectancy. Do you really think I’m gonna let something like that out of my hands without payment in full? Not on your life. Not on your life. Mic drop. I got paid.”

The jeans, meanwhile, are still waiting for their forever home. Despite their digs being upgraded from a dusty old mine shaft (maybe) to an armored bank vault in Los Angeles, they are the same earnest, hardworking, interiorly racist jeans they have always been — with one significant difference. There is now a kidney-shaped hole in one leg. Stevenson, a professional repairer, removed the color-matched patch. “I know that, on average, my customers want me to restore things back to their most pristine condition,” he says, noting that he tucked the patch into a back pocket should a prospective buyer want it reattached. “It’s an ‘eye of the beholder’ kind of a thing, I guess.”

To Eaton, this is sacrilege. When I bring up the missing patch during my visit, he practically swerves the van — “I can’t believe they fucking did that! You can print that. You can print that. I’m apoplectic,” he shouts. “I will tell you everything you want to know about Zip and how I feel about him: The fact he took that fucking patch off those jeans, a collector does not do that. A collector respects the history in the item that they’re collecting. It’s called ‘provenance.’” He says this in a vaguely French accent.

Moments later, he puts his anger aside to plug this year’s Festivus. “I’m gonna sell the oldest Levi’s in the world,” he says. At the airport, he lets me see his latest spectacle, which has been chilling in a dust bag in the trunk with two other pairs. Eaton says these jeans, which are in remarkably good condition, date back to 1873, the first of the brand’s many years with an exclusive patent on riveted pockets. If they’re authentic, they would rival the oldest pair in Levi’s own archive. Later, he tells me he expects them to go for $250,000. I take a closer look at the label on another elderly pair of Levi’s — two horses trying to pull apart a pair of jeans — and Eaton smacks my hand away. “You never touch the label,” he says firmly. “Never.”

The same week I visited Eaton, I got to see the jeans in person at Inspiration LA, an annual upscale convention hosted by fashion editor Rin Tanaka. When I arrived, two assistants were huddled around a display case in Stevenson’s booth. How exactly do you make an $87,000 pair of jeans look expensive? They first tried suspending the pants from a simple wooden hanger hooked onto a length of twine. But the line sagged, which made the seat pooch, which looked bad. A jacket was added to hide the twine, but the whole denim-on-denim look was giving Big Invisible Scarecrow, which was also bad. Eventually, someone managed to pull the rope tight, hoisting the jeans to eye level where discerning shoppers like Dave star Travis Bennett and Tyler, the Creator, could better appreciate the 150-year-old details: the candle wax, the buckleback, the calcified buttons.

Since buying the jeans, Haupert has more followers, more clients, even more selling power. (Auction platform Bidstitch recently named him the “biggest IG seller” of 2023.) At the Starbucks next door to Inspiration, two young men with laminated event-day passes audibly gasped while scrolling Instagram. The navy “afterhood” Haupert found in a plastic bag in the attic of a bando had just sold. (For $6,000, he later admits.)

Despite a near-constant digital presence, Haupert is hard to pin down. He hardly answers my DMs or texts. “We didn’t really bring the jeans here to sell,” he finally says after we lock eyes across the convention center for a third time. While we chat, two of his Licorice Pizza–looking buddies crouch nearby. Feet away, at Stevenson’s booth, a security guard in a too-tight suit does doughnuts around the jeans. “If we do sell, it’s gonna be for a lot,” he says, his yellow-blue eyes never once leaving the few customers haunting his racks. “It could be anywhere from half a million to — who knows? — $2 million.” (The very next day, Stevenson texts that he and Haupert are now “60-40 partners.” Haupert remains majority owner.)

Arai, Stevenson’s Japanese client, has come to Pasadena from West Los Angeles, where he lives with his wife and young daughter. For hours, the family of three carefully comb the booths of candy-colored collegiate sweatshirts, novelty tees, and pre-owned memorabilia in search of the perfect item in the perfect size. Before leaving to put their toddler down for a nap, they stop to get a closer look at the jeans. “I am not buying denim for investment purposes, but I feel it is a great investment,” Arai later says via email. “Not only do you get a return on your money; you get to share a special experience with many people. People who see it will be moved.”

Up close and under the glare of double-paned glass, the ancient pants look earnest. American. Hardworking. They look a little beat up. They look like jeans.

The Realest Pair of Jeans