RALEIGH, N.C. - 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 — about 3,000 hats altogether.
Mr. 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 Mr. Fried died unexpectedly in December 2001, leaving his precious collection to his best friend, Kay Alexander, whom he had 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.”
But not many people have the wherewithal to take on a collection of such breadth and depth.
Miss Alexander, a writer and editor, can’t maintain it, so she is 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,” Miss Alexander said from Durham, where Mr. 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.”
Mr. Fried once valued the collection at $1 million, according to Durham lawyer Jim Craven, the administrator of Mr. Fried’s estate. Other estimates are in the mid-six-figure range.
Among its priceless treasures are the Panama, Homburg and fedora, Civil War hats, coal miner’s 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 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 museum in Stockport, England, said she has never heard of anything like Mr. Fried’s collection. Collectors typically specialize in an era, said Miss Spooner, who is collections access officer at the museum.
“You have to really love your subject to go as far as Jeff Fried did,” she said.
And he did love hats.
“I realized very young that a hat said it all,” he said, sporting a Panama during an interview on a steamy day in June 1998. “The chapeau finished it.”
A short man with a wrestler’s build, Mr. Fried was just as comfortable hoisting a 100-pound sack of flour as he was decorating petits fours.
Hats appealed to Mr. Fried on every level.
“The utility, the endless variety, the fact that they’re worn in all cultures for all reasons. Style, manufacturing, design. What they represent about everything from trade routes to availability of materials,” said Miss Alexander, who was friends with Mr. Fried for 23 years. “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,” Mr. Sloan said.
When Mr. Fried died at age 51 after vascular surgery related to diabetes, Miss Alexander knew that eventually she would have to part with his favorite things. She will sell most of the collection, she says, but like the memories of him that she holds dear, she plans to keep just a few hats.