The Wall Street firm that started the U.S. cotton trade before the Civil War and financed the railroads that built a nation might soon fade into history.

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NEW YORK — The Wall Street firm that started the U.S. cotton trade before the Civil War and financed the railroads that built a nation might soon fade into history.

Just days after Lehman Brothers Chief Executive Richard Fuld tried to pitch Wall Street on a plan to save the firm by shrinking it, he’s in complicated negotiations with potential buyers that may see the company sold piecemeal as soon as Sunday night, analysts said.

“Lehman Brothers, the Federal Reserve, the Treasury Department and potential suitors are locked deep in the caverns of their headquarters having intense discussions about who gets what chunk of Lehman,” said Anthony Sabino, professor of law and business at St. John’s University. “Nothing short of a miracle can save Lehman as is. It is highly unlikely Lehman will be in existence on Monday morning.”

Late in the day, Lehman received bids for its asset-management unit from private-equity firms including Bain Capital and Clayton Dubilier & Rice, as the investment bank seeks offers for the entire firm, according to people familiar with the auction who asked not to be named because the process is private.

The bids value the unit, which includes the Neuberger Berman fund-management business, private-equity funds and a brokerage firm serving wealthy individuals, at about $5 billion, according to the sources.

Representatives for Lehman and the private-equity firms declined to comment.

Other prospective buyers, which could include Bank of America and Britain’s Barclay’s, may swallow portions of Lehman’s investment banking or fixed-income business, analysts said. Considering the firm’s deep financial problems, riskier assets such as its mortgage and real-estate portfolios could be sold for just pennies on the dollar.

Others said to be interested include Japan’s Nomura Securities, France’s BNP Paribas and Deutsche Bank. All have declined to comment.

On Friday, Lehman’s stock closed at $3.65 — an all-time low and down nearly 95 percent from its 52-week high of $67.73 as investors grew more convinced that Lehman may be auctioned at fire-sale prices.

The stock’s plunge was a humiliating beating for the 158-year-old investment bank, one of Wall Street’s oldest firms, and for Fuld, 62, who has run the bank through internal squabbles, the technology bust, and the 9/11 attacks that destroyed its headquarters.

Lehman built its reputation on trading government and corporate bonds. Over his 15 years at the helm, Fuld expanded the firm’s repertoire to investment banking and money management for wealthy clients. He also stretched its overseas reach to better compete with rivals like Goldman Sachs. About half of the firm’s profit comes from outside the U.S.

As it grew, it also took on greater risk, including with the kind of real-estate investments that have forced global banks and brokerages to write down more than $300 billion since the subprime-mortgage crisis roiled the credit markets.

On Wednesday, Lehman reported it lost almost $4 billion because of the sales and write-downs on its residential and commercial real-estate assets. Its total losses for the year added up to $6.9 billion.

To shore up confidence among investors and its customers, Lehman presented a plan that called for selling its investment-management unit and spinning off most of its real-estate investments into a separate publicly traded company.

The attempt failed, forcing Fuld to consider sell the firm he has worked at since 1969.

The downfall of Lehman Brothers is eerily familiar to how the government helped engineer Bear Stearns’ sale to JPMorgan Chase in March with a deal backed by a $29 billion loan from the Federal Reserve.

But unlike Bear Stearns, which happened swiftly, financial markets have been aware of Lehman’s troubles for a long time and have had time to prepare.

Bear Stearns also was not able to borrow directly from the Fed. Lehman could because the Fed opened the borrowing spigot for investment banks after Bear Stearns imploded.

Information from Bloomberg News is included in this report.