United Asset Management Corp. is moving toward a possible sale of its Pilgrim Baxter & Associates Ltd. investment management unit.

The Boston company announc-ed Wednesday that it and Wayne, Pa.-based Pilgrim have hired the investment banks Goldman, Sachs & Co. and Allen & Co. to help find a retail distribution partner for the unit.

"This could result in a sale," the companies said in a prepared statement.

Industry experts said potential buyers include mutual fund companies, European financial institutions, or U.S. insurance companies.

United Asset Management had planned to sell Pilgrim to the big insurer Nationwide Financial Services Inc. of Columbus, Ohio, for $600 million but that deal collapsed in the fall.

At yearend United Asset Management had $201 billion of assets under management through 50 operating units. Pilgrim has $12 billion of assets under management through pension funds, institutional accounts, and 14 no- load mutual funds.

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