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Sunday, June 12, 2005

The Mad Hatter

Bid by bid, half of what may have been the largest private collection of hats anywhere was auctioned, signaling an end to the owner's dream of one day starting the National Hat Museum.

Jeffrey Fried, former co-owner of Mad Hatter's Bake Shop, amassed about 3,000 hats before dying in 2001 at the age of 51 after vascular surgery related to his diabetes. He had incorporated the National Hat Museum, but it never became a reality.

"It could happen to anybody's collection. It is sad," said John McIlwee, head of N.C. State University's theater, who knows the same fate may await his collection of fashion hats. "It's exciting to look at it, seeing it the way he saw it. Seeing it in pieces, that's not as exciting. It has a poignancy."

Kay Alexander of Durham, Fried's best friend whom he dubbed his "junior curator," inherited the collection. She had to sell most of the hats to pay the debts of Fried and the estate.

All the nonmilitary hats were sold Saturday at Leland Little Auction & Estate Sales in Hillsborough, generating almost $70,000 to be shared by Alexander and Fried's mother.

The military collection will be sold Oct. 1 at the same auction house.

On Saturday, the hat that brought the highest bid was a 1900s white leather embossed fire chiefs hat with a gold lion-shaped finial at the top. It sold for $900. There were bargains as well: a 1970s Stetson cowboy hat went for $5, a Bethlehem Steel hard hat sold for $10, and three New York City Park Ranger hats were purchased for $40.

The bulk of the collection was purchased by Chris Long, 52, and his son, Bart Long, 27, of Bristol, Va.

Asked whether they collect hats, Bart Long said, "We do now."

Chris Long has been buying collectibles since he was a child, and has filled much of a 30,000-square-foot warehouse with the purchases.

After spending thousands of dollars during five hours of bidding, Chris Long said, "I have no idea what we bought."

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