As the quest to identify what appear to be the remains of Josef Mengele reaches a climax in Sao Paulo, Brazil, a furious media war has erupted half a world away over the documentation rights to the Nazi war criminal's life on the run.

Two of West Germany's wealthiest publications are locked in a vitriolic duel, challenging each other's sense of truth, honor and greed as they auction off rights to material illustrating Mengele's odyssey as a fugitive in South America over the last three decades.

While the Munich-based weekly Bunte entertains offers to reprint snapshots and letters it received from the Auschwitz doctor's son, Stern magazine in Hamburg claims to have trumped that scoop with hundreds of photographs acquired from an Austrian couple, Wolfram and Liselotte Bossert, who sheltered Mengele during his last years in Brazil.

Both magazines appeared this week with an extensive array of pictures, some identical or taken at the same scene, of a Josef Mengele beaming proudly next to his son and enjoying the company of friends and their children.

Bunte ran excerpts from Mengele's letters with exclusive commentary by his son, but Stern struck a pose of civic duty. Stern said it was turning over all Mengele notes, letters and tape recordings in its possession to the Frankfurt prosecutor, Hans Eberhard Klein, who has been in charge of West Germany's hunt for the elusive Nazi war criminal for the past 11 years.

"We will not tell the story about Mengele's life of hide and seek, as told to Bunte by Mengele's son Rolf, because this is impossible to verify," said Ulrich Voelklein, a senior Stern editor. "We will only write what we know actually happened to him in the past 40 years."

Stern's reputation was badly damaged two years ago when it published with great fanfare what were touted as Adolf Hitler's secret diaries. The 60 volumes, for which Stern paid more than $3 million, were quickly shown to be primitive forgeries.

Bunte, already irked at losing its unique status as trustee of private Mengele archives, all but accused Stern of checkbook journalism and gold-digging at the expense of the Holocaust.

Norbert Sakowski, Bunte's deputy editor who has handled the Mengele series, underscored his magazine's "more tasteful and sensitive approach" by noting it paid no money to Rolf Mengele for the material, nor was the son seeking any payment for their exclusive arrangement.

The younger Mengele, a 41-year-old lawyer from Freiburg, ostensibly gave the material to Bunte to clear up the mystery of his father's existence and to end the public harassment of his family, according to Sakowski.

Apart from two public statements, in which he said he waited until now -- six years after the event -- to confirm his father's death to protect those who helped him over the years, Rolf Mengele has stayed in seclusion and refused interviews with all other publications.

Sakowski, who joined his present employer seven years ago after leaving Stern, stressed that Bunte was giving all profits to the Auschwitz survivors' fund. In crass contrast, he said, Stern was asking "hundreds of thousands of dollars from television networks for the pictures and will not give any of the money to the Jews."

Insisting "only we have the true scoop," Sakowski has charged that Stern, by going through the Bosserts, "is illegally obtaining material left by Mengele to his son."

Stern's editors retort that Bunte is publishing photographs that were taken by the Bosserts and given to Rolf Mengele but for which he holds no copyright.

Stern acquired the Mengele papers, photographs and notebooks from the Bosserts "for a normal, completely legal honorarium," said the magazine's news editor, Guenther Schoenfeld.

As soon as Brazilian authorities began digging up Mengele's alleged skeleton on June 6, Stern dispatched several reporters to locate and strike a deal with the Bosserts, who harbored the Nazi "Angel of Death" before his reported death in a swimming accident in 1979.

In return for "payment at the going rate," Stern obtained the copyright to hundreds of photographs, notebooks, random philosophical jottings and three voice recordings that the Austrian pair kept hidden away after the death of the fiendish Nazi physician.

Some of the photographs were identical to those given to Bunte by Rolf Mengele. The son apparently left many of the photographs and negatives taken of his father with the Bosserts when he went to Brazil in 1979 to pick up the Nazi doctor's belongings after his death. The dead-heat race to the newstand this week might have been accepted by both magazines as a whim of journalistic competition, except that high-priced bidding for the material had already lured American television networks and news magazines to their offices.

Time, Newsweek and the three major networks, as well as numerous European media, sent representatives to West Germany last weekend to examine the precious goods held by the two rival publications.

Unlike the Hitler diaries, which were crude fakes with an unlikely provenance, the Mengele papers came from his known family and friends and appeared highly plausible from the start. Historians summoned last week to scrutinize the cache said they soon realized there could be no doubt that the Mengele letters are genuine.

But their worth may be something else. Those who looked at Mengele's writings with an eye to buying rights quickly dismissed them as the trite meanderings of an unreconstructed Nazi who felt betrayed by history.

"There were none of the insights found, for example, in the memoirs of Albert Speer the Third Reich architect and Hitler intimate ," said one source who examined the letters for a U.S. publication. "He showed no regrets about his past, he was bitter about his fate, but in all the writings there were no intriguing thoughts or reminiscences about the Nazi regime and its leadership."

Time and Newsweek both rejected Bunte's offer to purchase a package deal including access to all pictures and letters for $250,000. Even when the price dropped to $100,000 the American magazines wanted nothing to do with it.

NBC, which was prepared to proceed with the six-digit deal, backed out at the last minute when Bunte refused to cede the check immediately to the Auschwitz survivors' fund and insisted on keeping up to a third of the money for expenses, according to NBC sources.

"There was no way we could accept that kind of exploitation," an NBC executive said.

Bunte ended up selling the rights to Figaro magazine in France and Panorama in Belgium, but is still shopping for a North American customer.

Stern has sold off the rights to its collection of Mengele photographs to Paris Match magazine for France, the Observer newspaper for Britain, and Time magazine for North America. It feels vindicated in its decision not to market any papers, particularly with the trauma of the Hitler diaries' hoax so fresh in everyone's minds.

"In a word, Mengele's writings are banal, with no historical value," said Stern's Schoenfeld. Other editors at the Hamburg magazine conceded that the vacuous contents of Mengele's writings made easier the decision to turn his musings over to the Frankfurt prosecutor's office.