John B. Nethercutt, owner of Merle Norman Cosmetics, has paid $800,000 to buy back a car he sold for $5,000 in 1961.

The car is a 1936 Duesenberg Convertible Coupe (body by Rollston), which cost $17,500 in the year it was built.

Nethercutt, in need of money to get his Los Angeles cosmetics business going, sold the black Duesenberg more than 20 years ago to Nevada gambling magnate William Fisk Harrah -- who had collected 1,453 cars by the time of his death in 1978.

The Harrah's Automobile Collection was the largest and most complete auto collection in the world.

Holiday Inns Inc., which now owns Harrah's casinos and hotels, is selling most of the cars in the collection at a series of auctions; the latest ended yesterday in Sparks, Nev.

A spokesman for Holiday Inns said the auctions are being held to liquidate a "nonproductive asset" -- the collection -- valued at "$40 million to $50 million."

About 300 of the choicest Harrah's cars will be kept by a publicly supported foundation.

Spokesmen for Nethercutt yesterday said he wanted to add the Duesenberg to his own collection of classic cars on display in Sylmar, Calif. Nethercutt, 70, paid $2 million for 19 cars at the Harrah's auction, raising to about 165 the number of cars in his collection. Merle Norman last year sold cosmetics worth $92.5 million.

Holiday Inns took in $10.2 million on the sale of 335 cars at the weekend auction. The top sellers besides the 1936 Duesenberg Convertible included a 1922 Mercedes Targa Florio Racer that sold for $300,000; a 1929 Duesenberg Town Limousine, $280,000; a 1910 Napier 7-passenger tourer, $275,000; and a 1931 Duesenberg Torpedo Sedanette, $240,000.