WASHINGTON (AP) _ The Justice Department has agreed to compensate President Nixon's estate $18 million for thousands of secretly recorded tapes and presidential papers seized when Nixon resigned in 1974. The payment is a fraction of what Nixon's estate sought _ but far less than the government offered to pay.

The government said Nixon's estate at one point had sought $35 million plus 25 years worth of interest, bringing the asking price to more than $200 million.

The $18 million figure was reached in a settlement after a lengthy lawsuit in U.S. District Court in Washington over the value of the papers, 3,700 hours of tape recordings, photos and other items seized when Nixon resigned rather than face impeachment and the prospect of removal from office.

In court, government lawyers argued against paying the estate any money but said if something must be paid, a fair value would be no more than $2.2 million.

After Nixon resigned over the Watergate affair, Congress passed a law confiscating what Nixon left behind. Six years after his materials were seized, Nixon sued for compensation. The estate took up the lawsuit after Nixon died April 22, 1994.

Initially, a court ruled that the Nixon estate was entitled to nothing, but in 1992 a federal appeals court ruled that the estate was entitled to be paid the fair value of the seized materials. A second trial was conducted to set a figure.

Monday's settlement came as a federal judge was deciding how much, if anything, the government should pay for the materials.

``It's our belief that presidential papers belong to all the American people,'' said David Ogden, acting assistant attorney general in charge of the Justice Department's civil division. ``This settlement brings to a close 10 years of litigation surrounding President Nixon's papers. ... This is a fair resolution for the American taxpayer.''

In a statement, the Nixon estate said it estimates that the Nixon family ``will probably receive less than one-half of 1 percent of the settlement _ about $90,000.''

The chief beneficiary of the settlement will be the Richard Nixon Library & Birthplace in Yorba Linda, Calif., which the estate estimated would receive about $6 million. The law firm that represented the estate, Larroca & Lewin, will get about $7,385,000, the estate added.

Another $2.75 million will go for federal and New Jersey estate taxes, including interest.

Directors of the Nixon Foundation _ which operates the library in Yorba Linda, the burial site of Nixon and his wife, Pat, and the Nixon Center, a foreign policy think tank in Washington _ will decide how the funds will be used.

The Nixon estate's statement called the seizure of the presidential materials ``unprecedented.''

Nixon's presidential papers and tapes are in the National Archives in College Park, Md., just outside Washington.

The question of compensation never arose previously because presidents from Herbert Hoover through George Bush, except for Nixon, donated their papers to government-operated presidential libraries. The Nixon Library is privately operated.

The lengthy court case, which focused on how much various tapes and papers would be worth to collectors, attracted little attention in Washington, except for when Watergate celebrities testified.

Testifying in January 1999, Alexander Butterfield, the man who spilled the beans to the Senate Watergate Committee about the Nixon White House's taping system, chuckled about how appraisers had valued the president's famous ``Silent Majority'' speech at more than $90,000.

Twelve drafts and the final, reading copy of the speech are worth that much, Nixon estate appraisers said, because the address on Nov. 3, 1969, generated a huge public response. But with a smile, Butterfield testified that the 50,000 favorable telegrams and 30,000 letters that poured into the White House after the speech were largely ``manufactured'' by the president's staff.

Former White House Counsel John Dean also testified at the trial, as did scores of historians, archivists and appraisers.