THE CONTINUING courtroom tussle over what "fair market value" to assign to the office papers of Richard M. Nixon is ludicrous but not greatly surprising. This is, after all, an era when children collect Beanie Babies for their future scarcity value; when grown-ups hoard their childhood comic books and lunch boxes in the hope that they will someday be worth millions as "collectibles"; and when a cigarette butt smoked by Greta Garbo fetched $352 at a Hollywood auction. Hope springs eternal, but the government, in the person of Senior U.S. District Judge Garrett Penn, should feel no obligation to indulge the Nixon estate's wishful thinking--let alone its price tag of $213 million.

The late ex-president's estate has spent 20 years suing the federal government over official records of the Nixon presidency that were impounded after the disgraced president's resignation in 1974. These are not personal records, which were returned long ago, but presidential material to which the archives generally have legal right and material pertaining directly to the Watergate scandal. The estate says it could have sold the material at the time for $35 million; the $213 million figure comes from the calculation of compound interest.

Lawyers for the government argued in court Monday that there was no such market in the 1970s, that the estimates are wildly inflated and that, in any case, the government owes the estate no compensation for seizing material it was entitled to seize. They might have observed too that the possible auction value--then or now--of Nixon memorabilia such as the draft of the president's resignation speech derives in large measure from a notoriety produced mostly by the president's own misdeeds. It may be that those who happen to own scraps of Nixon handwriting have been able to cash in, like any lucky pack rat, on that notoriety. But such mysteries of the marketplace are no business of the court.