THE SCENT OF scandal and ruin and unrequited love still lingers around the multimillion-dollar collection of 1,640 paintings and art objects John Gellatly gave the Smithsonian Institution.

It tells of an old man who sought a beautiful young woman for his second wife, and of the young woman who thought she was marrying a wealthy husband and became bitter when she learned he had given his wealth away.

It's also the story of how Gellatly's collection became a part of National Collection of Fine Arts (NCFA).

A great selection of Gellatly's gifts to the Smithsonian is on view at the NCFA's recently opened exhibit, "Past and Present, a Century and Half of a National Collection." More of his decorative arts collection is installed in the Gellatly Gallery on the first floor of the building at 8th and G Streets NW.

The paintings include a Rubens and many by the modern artists of his period who are just now being reevaluated - Mary Cassatt, Frederick Church, Childe Hassam, Albert Pinkham Ryder, Abbott Handerson Thayer.

The decorative objects are fiery, fearful and fantastic. An East Turkestan fresco from the 8th-9th centuries is one of the important pieces of the collection (hung in the gallery above curious fingers). An Italian coral-on-gilt-bronze holy water font is from the 17th-18th century. A tomb figurine, a mythical beast, is from the Tang dynasty (618-906) of China. Two dagger handles, both from 18th-century India, are of jade and rock crystal.

The jewels are remarkable. There are boxes of beads and fetishes strung together without respect to origin and time, from ancient Egyptian, Roman, Byzantine and Sassanian (ancient Persia) empires. Sets of pearl buttons have matching bracelets and necklaces. Pendants and other jewelry include shapes of a fish and a crucifix. The jewels are rock crystal gold, diamonds, enamel, pearls, amethyst, garnet, quartz, agate and onyx.

A burial crown of filigree silver, enamel and pearls from the Ming dynasty of 17th-century China is one of the most beautiful objects you'll see anywhere. A cup, carved from a single piece of emerald, was said to have belonged Jahangir, Mogul emperor of Delhi - a gift from his wife who hoped to limit his drinking.

On the main floor are other wonders. A bigger-than-life Bodhisattva (a form of buddha) is protected by the curving staircase. Nearby is a pair of gilt Italian candelabra. The twisted gilded posts they originally sat upon are upstairs in the new exhibit.

Inside the Gellatly Gallery are a bronze ritual vissel that comes from the late Shang dynasty (China, 11th century B.C.). A gold victory wreath was formed in Greece, 4th-3rd century B.C. A lindenwood miniature Christ crib from the 15th century is made of 15 pieces (when the Smithsonian got it, the crib was covered with old varnish and the angel wings were upside down). The crib likely was a gift to a young girl taking holy orders.

A baroque pendant - a Neptune with a triton - has a large, anatomically shaped pearl as the body and another as the fishly tail. A Russian enamel-on-gold box, set with diamonds, shows Catherine the Great's assumption of the throne of Russia.

It is easy to see why Gellatly's second wife, who discovered only after her marriage that Gellatly was penniless, spent 20-odd years trying to recover a part of them. The story, according to Richard Murray, assistant to the director, and Harry Lowe , assistant director, of the National Collection, goes like this.

John Gellatly, to look at his 1930s portrait (by Irving Ramsey Wiles) was a short man, but with the sort of eyes often referred to as "boudoir." Even though he was well into his 70s, he gives you a side-long glance out of this portrait, as though he's suggesting all sorts of delicious but reckless adventures. Wiles painted him wearing a white suit. Some say he wore white winter and summer, but a photograph of him shows that once, at least, he was equally posh in a black suit. Often he favored a red vest. He hand is held (in box portrait and photograph) to show off his great jade ring, set by Tiffany's and once considered the finest jade in the United States. The portrait hangs not in the exhibit (unfortunately) but in the executive offices of the National Collection, an ever watchful eye.

Gellatly was born in New York City in 1853. After his parents died, he was raised by an uncle. Gellatly worked in his uncle's drug firm, in London, and in 1885 opened a soon-flourishing real estate and insurance business on lower Broadway. In 1886 he married Edith Rogers, an heiress and a fellow student at art school. Her uncle bequeathed a large amount of money to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York City.

In their elegant New York houses (20 West 21st St., then 34 West 57th St) the Gellatlys crammed paintings and sculptures from all over the world. Gellatly took as his thesis that the contemporary art of his time was as good as art of any other period or place. And he set about proving it by buying one of each from everywhere and every time. He and his wife, herself a painter, were a part of the artists' life of the period. It is said that he vied with Charles Freer (Freer Gallery) to buy the work of contemporary artists such as Hassam, Ryder, Thayer and John Twachtman.

The first Mrs. Gellatly died in 1917, and that's when he started getting into trouble.

According to Thomas M. Beggs, once a director of the National Collection (writing in a catalog in 1954 about the Gellatly paintings), Gellatly, in the hopes of keeping his collection together, and showing it to the public, gave it to Smithsonian on March 27, 1929. It was formally accepted on June 7, 1929, after the president had approved a joint resolution appropriating funds necessary for its preservation and maintenance.

By this time, Gellatly had apent his entire fortune - and more - buying more and more marvels. He had to sell his house (for $1 million, his second wife said) and move to a hotel room to help pay for his purchases. To house his collection while waiting for the Smithsonian to accept it, he rented galleriesin the Heckscher Building in New York. The public could see the collection by appointment.

Enter, center stage, the spectacularly beautiful (and 42 years younger than Gellatly) actress-producer-writer Charlayne Whiteley Plummer, who became the second Mrs. Gellatly. In a statement (part of 44 papers bought in August 1989 for $815 from her daughter, Mary P.W. Plummer) now in the National Collection, the second Mrs. Gellatly told her version of the tale.

In 1925, a friend, an English Army officer, introduced them. "Mr. Gellatly called me up the next day and invited me to dine at his home four days later to meet a cousin of his - my apartment was one block from his home, both on 57th Street, New York City . . . . After the dinner Mr. Gellatly was a constantly visitor to my apartment to see my small daughter and myself . . . . He sent us flowers at Christmas and Easter . . . . "

In September 1928 Gellatly proposed. After a suitable wait of three days, she accepted. They were married two years later, Sept. 24, 1930 - when he was 78.

During their two-year engagement (he'd asked that it be kept secret), Plummer gave up her radio work and writing. And even spent, she said, "about $2,000 for a trousseau for myself and small daughter to go on a trip around the world which Mr. Gellantly had planned." After that, she had "very little left."

Neither did he - though the bride-to-be didn't know it. He had to sell his last big piece of property to pay for his latest acquistions. But he happily spent his time courting Plummer and negotiating with Smithsonian Secretary Charles Greeley Abbot. One of his conditions to giving the collection to the Smithsonian (according to the second Mrs. Gellatly) was that they hire his English butler, Ralph Seymour, as curator for a year. She also said that Abbot had to borrow $10,000 privately to pay Gellatly's lease on the Hecksher galleries.

"I would go on and on at the odd manner in which this was transacted through these two old gentlemen, Mr. Gellatly and Dr. Charles Abbot, each wanting a monument to themselves," she wrote.

Mrs. Gallatly should have suspected her new husband wasn't as rich as she thought he was because "the only money he ever gave me in the years I knew him was $550 right after we were married. He gave me no bonds or stocks and in jewelry only my engagement and wedding rings. When he came to see me the evening after our marriage he seemed very embarrassed.'Why,' he said, 'Charlayne, I forgot to give you a wedding present, but tomorrow I want you to go with me to the storage company so that I can transfer some furniture in your name' - not wanting me to know his financial condition he told me that was my wedding present."

The next day, the furniture turned out to be a lot of old chairs "that had to be reupholstered as they had no seats." When she asked him where the table was, he said, "Why it is in the collection, a very important piece, but don't worry, my dear, I will replace it with one just as good.' Of course, he had nothing left to buy anything with, which I found out much to my dismay two weeks later, after I had hunted for an apartment and had taken him and my little daughter to see it, and then several days later I asked him to sign the lease as it was just what we needed and it might be gone. He then told me he had no money and could not take it."

Poor Gellatly not only had no money, he owed federal and state income taxes, among other debts.Troubles mounted on troubles for Gellatly, now 79. Mrs. Gellatly's statement tells vividly how he solved his problems, and how she felt about it."

"Fourteen months after his marriage in his hotel room on a cold November night, he raised all the windows wide and stripped himself and was found unconscious the next morning by the maid in the floor in such a bad condition that he died four days later of pneumonia, never regaining consciousness and not leaving me a penny." In fact, according to a newspaper story of the period, he left her $79, an umbrella and an empty suitcase.

A few days after his death, a story in a Washington newspaper said, "The declaration of Mrs. Charlane (incorrectly spelled) Whitely Gellatly that she would ask Congress to have returned to her the $4-million art collection given to the Smithsonian Institution by her husband, John Gellatly, in 1929, left officials of the institution unmoved today."

A decision in 1948 by the U.S. Court of Appeals settled the ownership upon the Smithsonian, saying that the gift had been accepted before she accepted Gellatly.

After the Gellatly galleries (then in the Natural History Building) were renovated in 1952-53, Mrs Gellatly took up the cudgels again, to get Congress to pass a bill awarding her compensation. But it availed her naught.

In the mid-'60s, Dr. Abbot wrote a letter (now in the Smithsonian) to Seymour, Gellatly's one-time butler/curator, noting that the bill was approved by the House but, "Sen. Joe Robinson of Arkansas sat all day long on the Senate floor on the last day of the session to prevent the bill to be acted on."

In the letter, Dr. Abbot went on to say, "I testified at the trial before the Court of Appeals that she handed me Mr. Gellatly's letter of proposal and said that while she did not love him, she had a high regard for him and accepted him to help her 12-year-old daughter. I had replied "if that was your purpose, you should have gotten a nuptial agreement."

"'Oh', she said, 'that would've been a chorus girl's trick. I replied, "You seem to have the system but not the technique.' She laughed and said 'It might appear so.' Her lawyer said, 'Did you say that?' 'Yes,' said she. She told me that she never lived with him."

Mrs. Gellatly died in 1970.

There's at least one other well-documented story about the Gellatly collection. Joshua Taylor, director of the National Collection, has in his office an enormous desk, richly carved. There's a face - Taylor thinks it might be a self-portrait - right at the knee hole. Dozens of other faces swing over to cover the drawers' keyholes. It's a Janus desk - to be used from both sides. And of course, it's full of secret drawers and panels. The cabinetmaker, as is attested on the pullout shelves on which his life history is recounted, was P. Della Monica.

In 1938, Della Monica wrote the National Collection of Fine Arts to say that over a period of 21 years he had made a great many pieces of furniture for Gellatly - the desk cost him 4,551 1/2 hours and Gellatly $2137.50. Six of the pieces, he said, were now in the Smithsonian. But in later years, Della Monica wrote he had "some disappointment in art . . ." and was then working shoveling coal.

"There, by me, in some way or another, I state that I had the honor to have six art pieces in the Smithsonian Art Institute in Washington, D.C.

"Oh, this was enough for them to make of me a great subject of ridicule; even one of the big bosses told me once, not long ago, 'Say, Della Monica, how are the six pieces at the Smithsonian Institute? Did you dream again last night about them?' In sorrow, I suffocated in my soul, such sneering insult; they do not believe me, they do not know me."

The Smithsonian did indeed write a letter attesting to his work. And in recent years, several of his relatives have come to see his work in the Smithsonian.