For Jeff Fried, no outfit was complete without a hat to top it off.

He was passionate about hats. Women's hats, children's hats, Spanish-American War hats, he collected them all -- some 3,000 hats altogether.

Fried, who made a living as a pastry chef, did everything in broad strokes. He also incorporated the National Hat Museum and started a Web site. He dreamed of building a place that could house his massive collection.

But Fried died unexpectedly in December 2001, leaving his precious collection to his best friend, Kay Alexander, whom he'd dubbed his "junior curator."

"It took me almost two years to look at his handwritten catalogue without crying for hours," she said. "Jeff brought home every single one of those hats and put them into my hands. He referred to it as our collection."

Not many people have the wherewithal to take on a collection of such breadth and depth, though.

Alexander, a writer and editor, can't maintain it herself, so she's looking for a buyer who can take most of the collection, including custom mannequin heads, fabric, thread, buttons and, in some cases, uniforms to go with the hats.

"Without him, I don't have the heart to do it. So I'm looking for somebody who's crazy about hats," Alexander said from Durham, N.C., where Fried once owned the Mad Hatter bakery. "I'm not a collector in the way that Jeff was. I love the collection and know a lot about it, but he was my primary connection to it."

Fried once valued the collection at $1 million, according to Durham attorney Jim Craven, the administrator of Fried's estate. Other estimates are in the mid-six-figure range.

Like any collection of such a specific nature, it's actually worth what someone will pay.

Among its treasures are the Panama, homburg and fedora, Civil War hats, coal miners' helmets, Coca-Cola hats, pilots' caps, British bobby hats and a hat once owned by Mae West. They fill about 1,000 square feet of storage space, the mannequin heads and hat stands an additional 500 square feet.

The collection is in a class by itself, said Doug Zinn of the Mary Duke Biddle Foundation, a Durham-based charitable organization that supports the arts.

"I know of nothing in private hands that would touch this kind of collection," he said.

It's beyond what some museums have.

Hannah Spooner of Hat Works, a hatting museum in Stockport, England, said she's never heard of anything like Fried's collection. The museum has about 400 hats along with the tools and machinery of the millinery industry, which flourished in Stockport in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. The museum attracts about 45,000 visitors annually.

Collectors typically specialize in an era, said Spooner, the collections access officer at the museum. "You have to really love your subject to go as far as Jeff Fried did," she wrote in an e-mail.

And he did love hats.

"I realized very young that a hat said it all," he said in an interview with the Associated Press on a steamy day in June 1998, a Panama perched atop his head. "The chapeau finished it."

A short man with a wrestler's build, Fried was just as comfortable hoisting a 100-pound sack of flour as he was decorating petits fours.

He would drive from North Carolina to New York to spend nine hours with a friend, then drive straight back and go right to work. He kept his friends spellbound by spinning vivid stories, crammed with color and detail, as he chain-smoked cigarettes. He said the nicotine calmed him.

"Jeff was totally larger than life," said Alexander, who described her 23-year relationship with Fried as more complex than any between lovers.

"He was the person I loved most in the world, and vice versa," she said.

Hats appealed to Fried on every level. "The utility, the endless variety, the fact that they're worn in all cultures for all reasons," Alexander said. "Style, manufacturing, design. What they represent about everything from trade routes to availability of materials.

"Jeff always felt that hats completed the look, whether you're going to the movies or going into battle."

His collection tells the history of the world through one object, said Mark Sloan, director of the Halsey Gallery at the College of Charleston in South Carolina.

"What [the hat] says about us as humans is fascinating and crucial, from our occupations to who we were as social beings, our aspirations," Sloan said. "All these things are evident in the hats we wear."

Besides the practical, such as providing warmth and protection, "a hat marks you as special," Spooner said. "Hats make you look -- and feel -- important and authoritative."

They can also take away individuality, she said, citing military hats that identify you as part of a team. "So hats are intricately linked with identity," Spooner said. "A historic hat makes you think about the person who used to wear it, their identity."

When Fried died at age 51 after vascular surgery related to his diabetes, Alexander knew that eventually she would have to part with his collection.

She will sell most of the hats, she said, but like the memories of him that she holds dear, she plans to keep a few of his favorite things.

Kay Alexander, a longtime friend of Jeff Fried, with some of the 3,000 hats she inherited when Fried died in 2001. She is now looking for a buyer for the collection, which is housed in Durham, N.C.