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Are These 165-Year-Old Shipwrecked Jeans the Ultimate Selvedge Grail?

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A pair of five-button pants, recovered from a ship that sank in 1857, just sold at auction for $114,000.

A pair of work pants possibly made by or for Levi Strauss from the S.S. Central America are seen in a warehouse in...

A pair of work pants salvaged from the S.S. Central America, which sank in 1857.Courtesy of Jason Bean for USA TODAY NETWORK

Denim fanatics will do all sorts of things to get their hands on some high-quality blues. Remember when Carmy traded a circa-1955 Levi’s jacket for a lunch shift’s worth of beef on The Bear? He just got one-upped by one pants-minded buyer, who purchased a pair of five-button work pants, salvaged from a trunk found on the 1857 S.S. Central America after spending more than a century on the seafloor, for $114,000 at the Holabird Western Americana Collections auction this month. 

The steamship was headed from Panama to New York in September 1857 when it sank in a hurricane near South Carolina, with 425 people—and 30,000 pounds of California Gold Rush precious-metal loot—aboard. (The ruins were discovered in 1988 by the treasure hunter Thomas G. Thompson, whose whole deal seems about as complicated as you’d imagine a real-life treasure hunter’s would be.)

Among the wreck’s 153 survivors was the pants’ owner: a Mexican-American War veteran named John Dement, whose tanned-leather luggage was full of menswear treasures. Their long soak in the sea lent them some trippy black, gray, and rust-brown staining. Elsewhere in the so-called “Dement trunk” was a cotton twill vest, a couple wool work shirts, and some silk scarves, all of which look like they could have been designed by Sterling Ruby and then worn on a red carpet by Timothée Chalamet

Dement was also a buyer for his family’s mercantile shop, and had likely crossed paths with would-be gold prospectors during his business trips to buy goods. (Our man was a buyer! No wonder he had so many grails.) 

Holabird auction officials believe that the pants, due to their button size and fly detailing, could even be a very early prototype of Levi Strauss jeans—though Strauss (a fellow dry-goods wholesaler) and his associate, Jacob Davis, would not patent their modern bluejeans until 1873, some 16 years after the shipwreck. Levi’s officials call the claim speculation, though it’s likely the assertion helped boost their price at auction. 

“The pants are not Levi’s nor do I believe they are miner’s work pants,” Tracey Panek, a historian and director of the Levi Strauss & Co. Archives, wrote in an email to the Associated Press. Either way, we’d bet Carmy could trade those watery trousers in for a whole year’s worth of Italian beef sandwiches.

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