PHILADELPHIA -- Woodward & Lothrop, the Washington retailer that bought the John Wanamaker department stores last year for $183 million, is contending that it paid $57.2 million too much.

The irate buyer alleges that Carter Hawley Hale Stores Inc. of Los Angeles misstated the value of Wanamaker's assets when it sold the Philadelphia department store chain. Woodies says it wants a partial refund on the goods it was sold.

Carter Hawley Hale filed suit May 11 in Philadelphia Common Pleas Court, seeking a declaratory judgment upholding the price. Last week the case was moved to U.S. District Court, where Woodward & Lothrop is asking that it be submitted to federal arbitration.

"Woodward & Lothrop's accountants are, in effect, saying that they paid $57 million too much and should be refunded," Rudolf Garcia, an attorney representing Woodward & Lothrop, said Friday.

The 16-store Wanamaker chain was officially sold Dec. 31, 1986. The full purchase price of $183 million was paid at that time, with the final price supposedly subject to slight adjustments after Woodward & Lothrop's accountants had a chance to review the inventory. But Touche Ross & Co., Woodward & Lothrop's auditor, came up with adjustments that weren't minor.

According to Touche Ross, Carter Hawley Hale had not followed generally accepted accounting principles in tallying the book value of the Wanamaker chain.

Touche Ross disputed the accounting treatment of more than a dozen items on Wanamaker's balance sheet. Among the offenses alleged:Overstating the value of the inventory by nearly $13 million by failing to account for merchandise that had been marked down or was old and outdated.

Improperly accounting for $6.9 million worth of repairs needed to shore up the sidewalks outside the flagship Wanamaker store in Philadelphia.

Failing to account properly for $3.15 million worth of deferred income taxes.

Failing to account properly for $4.4 million worth of employe benefits, in addition to $1.1 million worth of accrued vacation time.

Improperly capitalizing nearly $4 million worth of store expenses.