Denim Hunting is a Real Job, and it’s Real Lucrative

  • Michael Allen Harris sells scraps of old jeans for up to $30K.
  • He finds the antique clothing along with other treasures, in abandoned mines in the West.

As portrayed in the titular documentaries Indiana Jones and National Treasure, treasure hunting is a thrilling and profitable job with unexpected benefits like falling in love and new friendships. It’s hard to get to the skill level where you’re confidently swapping bags of sand for priceless idols in the jungle. It’s even harder to add up the clues left behind by our forefathers in the country’s founding documents. But for one man in the deserts of California, Nevada, and Arizona, the dream is real.

People Love Blue Jeans. They Love Em!

Photo by Vidar Nordli-Mathisen on Unsplash

Michael Allen Harris works as a commercial painter but searches old mines in the West, not for gold and silver ingots, but for scraps of 100-year-old denim. Blue jeans are woven into the fabric of the United States. For some denim collectors, a piece of that history is worth big money. Harris told The Guardian he got into the gig by searching for antique whiskey bottles, also prolific in abandoned mines. The first few pairs of jeans he found, he accidentally shredded into rags, not realizing what they were worth.


Photo by Tom Mussak on Unsplash

It turns out, collectors will shell out up to $100,000 for a complete pair of pants, and tens of thousands for the scraps of “blue gold.” Harris isn’t in it for the money, per se, “But some pieces are worth so much, it’s hard to justify keeping them.”

If you recall from Indiana Jones and National Treasure, the work isn’t without risk either. It’s not so much homicidal competitors and Nazis, but the much more mundane risk of a cave in. Harris has seen others try to excavate the abandoned mines using tractors, “it didn’t really work.” He’s much more methodical, like a trained archaeologist, taking “weeks or months” to reach areas deep enough in the mine to find artifacts.

Everyone Has Their Price

Photo by Cayetano Gil on Unsplash

Harris got started visiting mines with his father-in-law, a geologist. Together they move rubble from the entrances of mines, keeping aware that dangerous collapse is a possibility. Once deep enough in the mine, they find all kinds of interesting scraps, “we found bits of newspaper dating back to the 1800s. We have found scraps of handwritten letters and even some hand-drawn antique pornography.”

It’s the love of history that keeps Harris digging around in the dirt. He owns a collection, which isn’t for sale. But when he and his father-in-law strike it rich, he thinks about cashing out, “I have two daughters to put through college, so [the jeans] might have to go.”

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