They came into Lord & Taylor on Fifth Avenue in mid-April and snapped up six alligator handbags. They never checked the price tag. They didn't ask for gift wrap.

Two agents, one from the New York State Department of Environmental Conservation and one from the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service law enforcement division, seized the bags, suspecting they might be made, without proper papers, from an endangered species.

This week they returned the alligator bags.

Thought by law enforcement agents to be of a protected species, the handbags were examined by the head herpetologist at the Bronx Zoo and proved to be a species legal to hunt and kill.

And so concluded the latest adventure in the slow return of the ultimate luxury handbag to the clutches of wealthy American women, Nancy Reagan among them.

The problem for consumers began some time ago. The heavy commercialization hides, poaching and the destruction of alligator habitats severely depleted the alligator population in the early '60s. Individual states enacted conservation measures, and the federal government, through the Endangered Species Act, cracked down on poachers who were smuggling alligator hides out of the country, some by the thousands.

"The result has been an incredible comeback of the alligator from Texas to North Carolina," says Alan Levitt of the U.S. Fish and Wildlife Service. In some areas of Louisiana and Florida, alligators have even crawled out of canals and onto golf courses, making general nuisances of themselves.

In the last couple of years many alligators have been taken off the endangered list and reclassified to a status that allows them to be tanned into bags, belts and shoes, and eaten (the tail reportedly is the best part), as long as they have been taken legally.

But it is difficult telling a legal American alligator, called the alligator mississippiensis, from the illegal species, admits Judith Leiber, who designs some of the most beautiful alligator bags, including those seized at Lord & Taylor. "It is easy to tell by the markings on the whole skin, but when you use just a small part of it in a bag, the typical characteristics may be lost," says Leiber. "Just one section of a legal American alligator used in a pocketbook would resemble the Middle American crocodile, which is endangered," she says.

Alligator handbags ahve a certain inbred protection from becoming endangered -- their price tags. Leiber bags sell at Neiman-Marcus, Saks Fifth Avenue and Lord & Taylor, for example, for $1,600 to $3,000.

Lord & Taylor was never happier to take back a return.