Behind a combination-locked door in the rear of a warren of windowless rooms in the basement of an austere, marble-heavy office building on 14th Street NW, Renee Klish, curator of the U.S. Army's Center of Military History, pulls open a drawer of an unmarked steel cabinet to reveal four watercolors separated by crinkly tissue paper. The paintings are pretty good, especially in their detail of buildings. These are mostly wartime scenes, and looking at them, you feel the emptiness that descends on a place after a storm. But the skies seem amateurish, the rare human figures ineptly drawn. The historian William Shirer called these pictures "crude, stilted and lifeless," peopled with "figures so bad as to remind one of a comic strip."

The best of the paintings shows a war-torn streetscape -- a lamppost leaning away from a shrapnel-nicked brick building. The background reveals the facade of a gutted church, its purpose burned away. There is no one on the street; life has been chased, bombed, swept from this Belgian village where the soldier-artist found such devastation. The artist was good enough to make his living at this for some years. But he realized he was not going to make his mark as a painter. He changed careers and became far more successful in another line of work. His name was Adolf Hitler.

The United States of America claims ownership of these four Hitler watercolors. So does an art collector in Texas who bought the rights to the paintings from the children of Hitler's personal photographer. A lawsuit over the watercolors has been slouching through federal courts in Texas and Washington for 18 years. There are lawyers who spent much of their careers on the case, retired and still come back to the office to work on it. Some of the most important witnesses have died while the case drags on. Billy Price, the Texas collector who first filed suit against the government, has long since sold off his collection of Hitler art and World War II memorabilia -- someone who didn't like the idea of collecting Hitler's paintings put a bullet into Price's office one day, and that was enough for him.

But the lawyers push on, and so do their clients -- Price and the descendants of Heinrich Hoffmann, Hitler's friend and photographer. And all around the country, there is a busy and lucrative trade in Hitler's artwork -- mostly watercolors, a few oils, lots of hand-painted postcards (some of which were actually sent and include birthday salutations and wish-you-were-here vacation greetings on the flip side), and a few 1-by-2-inch miniatures that reveal an obsession with architectural detail.

Fifty-seven years after the Nazi dictator killed himself in his bunker under the Berlin that Soviet troops were torching in a vengeful, righteous rage, the fascination with Hitler shows few signs of abating. It is a worldwide obsession with a man who has become a universal symbol of hate and the human capacity for evil. But Hitler is also a particularly American interest. German filmmakers and writers occasionally take him on, and artists around the globe use his story and image to make points about violence and tolerance, religion and hate. But only in this country are there cable channels that serve him up around the clock, only here does he remain a constant in entertainment and literature, only here does the market in his artwork remain brisk and busy.

Those who work to keep the horror of the Holocaust and the crimes of Hitler fresh and meaningful fear that the Fuehrer and symbols of him -- the black-and-white footage, endlessly repeated; the mustache, forever imitated; the wild gestures and barking rhetoric, ceaselessly mocked -- will devolve into a crass commercialization that sweeps away memories of the horror. These people worry that Hitler's art might be used to promote new bouts of extremism and hate -- which is exactly why Hitler's art is banned in Germany, as are swastikas, Nazi regalia and even Mein Kampf. Fear of resurgent nationalism still

drives policy in Hitler's homeland, even after half a century of democracy.

In this country, there are no such taboos: Hitler is out in the open, a staple of Hollywood and novels, a magnet for collectors of military memorabilia, and yet an almost mundane presence. He is as daily as Dan Rather or Britney Spears, and nearly as easy to spoof. In this country, beyond the imagination or comprehension of Germans, there's a longstanding, thriving market in everything Nazi. Collections run the gamut: legitimate auction houses, back tables at flea markets, private stashes in climate-controlled, high-security additions to fancy suburban houses, and, of course, eBay, which, on one recent day, offered 1,125 Hitler-related items, from postage stamps to autographs to cuff links. Billy Price's privately published book on Hitler's art sells for $99 and comes with a promise that it is "completely nonpolitical and only concerns itself with the art of Adolf Hitler." There are a couple of prominent Hitler art collectors in Britain and elsewhere (Florence's Uffizi Gallery owns 18 Hitlers, and several Japanese collectors have a few Hitlers, though most Japanese concentrate on Nazi uniforms, which reenactors like to wear), but most of the best collections are in this country.

"We understand that some artifacts are sensitive to some people, and we offer these specimens with this in mind," says a policy statement on the Web site of Manion's International Auction, purveyor of Hitler bronze wall plaques ($39), a swastika-adorned paper lantern ($75), a Hitler wall tapestry (asking $390; no bids), and an original oil painting of the Fuehrer, signed by the artist (asking $2,000).

But prices jump markedly if the offering is something from Hitler's own hand, if it is a vision from the dictator's mind, a glimpse into the artist who might have been, into the reality that might have followed, if only the young painter had risen above his art school rejection and persisted in the career he had chosen as a boy, the path that had so outraged his father, the identity that Hitler would cling to throughout his life. Adolf Hitler, artist.

What does it mean now, half a century later, to own a Hitler, to hang it in a place of honor in your front hall, to secure it in an annex to your house, to want it so badly that you fight the government for decades for the right to call it your own? What does it say about you, about the culture in which you live, and about what Hitler is and will be?

From a 1937 book of Adolf Hitler aquarelles, published by a Nazi Party publishing house: Hitler "is at once the First Fuehrer and the First Artist of our Reich."

In a corner house on a quiet street in Bowie, Charles Snyder Jr., a retired Air Force major (Korea, Vietnam), and his business partner, Chase Haddock, man the mice on a bank of computers that are always on, always scouring eBay for bids and buys. Snyder, dressed in shorts and madras plaid shirt, is surrounded by a bewildering forest of clutter: floor-to-ceiling tchotchkes; precarious piles of books and maps; plastic tubs and cruddy old suitcases, all packed with photos, magazine covers, original war documents; shelves stuffed three-deep with military uniforms, swords, guns, decorations from the French Revolution to Korea; entire newspaper photo archives; and, tucked away in crevices known only to the proprietor, 16 works of art by Hitler. It's all for sale, all priced to move. At the moment, Snyder has 1,600 items up for auction on eBay.

Hitler once said he painted more than 1,000 pieces while living in Vienna from 1909 to 1914. A U.S. government report once put Hitler's total output at closer to 3,000 works. No good accounting of the pieces has been made. Collectors around the world consider any group of 20 or more Hitlers to be a fair-size collection. Snyder has bought and sold more than 100 pieces, at prices mostly in the $5,000 to $10,000 range.

The Hitler business, like the rest of Snyder's Treasure Trove, as it's known to its customers, was once a very public, social sort of endeavor -- road shows, a regular annual circuit around the country. EBay put an end to all that. No reason to leave the house anymore. "We get almost a million hits a month," announces Snyder, a muscular, correct man with close-cropped white hair and a mustache. "It's saved our lives." Forget the trucks -- Snyder's tools of the trade now are ergonomic neck cushions and anti-repetitive strain injury wrist straps.

Snyder has been a collector since 1962. "It's a disease and you can't stop," he says. At 70, he is, like many collectors, old enough to remember the war. It was indeed World War II stuff that first got him hooked on the collectibles biz -- uniforms, weapons, Eva Braun's tea service, Nazi autographs, swastika cuff links, Hitler's silver, Hitler's desk ornaments, and then, finally, Hitler's art. At one point a few years ago, Snyder owned 40 Hitlers. He's down to 11 watercolors, a bunch of postcards and one large oil, a dark portrait of a cathedral under a mottled brown sky. It is signed "Adolf Hitler" and dated 1936.

"He was kind of busy then," Snyder says. The oil hangs just inside his front door, next to autographed photos of Gerald Ford and Ronald Reagan. Don't be distracted by the homey look: Everything is for sale. He wants $35,000 for the oil.

About seven years ago, a retired U.S. Army lieutenant who was involved in the looting of Hitler's Bavarian hideaway sold Snyder his collection of Hitleriana. It was a mother lode from the fatherland. D.C. Watts and others in the 506th Parachute Infantry Regiment had entered Berchtesgaden with the first occupation troops in May 1945. The initial looting had already ended, but Watts soon learned of a network of tunnels leading to Hitler's country house, the Berghof. There he found the grail -- the storage rooms where Hitler's belongings were protected from Allied bombing.

American soldiers carried out their war booty by the trunkful. Watts snared hundreds of pieces of silverware, thousands of documents and more than 30 original Hitler paintings. "We won, so it's ours," is Snyder's explanation. "That's why guys bring stuff back. It's, 'Gee, Mom, I was there.' "

Snyder buys from anyone; he once picked up a Hitler from Albert Speer, the Fuehrer's architect. Snyder paid $500 for a Hitler sketch for a German pavilion at the proposed 1942 World's Fair. The major later sold it for $1,000. Business.

Snyder has pencil sketches of Linz, Austria, Hitler's home town. He has the postcards. Snyder doesn't especially like Hitler's painting. In his catalogue of his collection, he writes of the Hitler works, "People and animals are out of proportion, poorly articulated, and vastly out of scale with the backgrounds. Figures are rendered with wanton disregard for anatomy or accurate animation." All of which has nothing to do with Snyder's regard for the value of his Hitlers. They're merchandise. Most of his customers see it the same way: One of Snyder's friends liked one Hitler so much, he scanned it into his computer to use as a screen saver. But other customers don't care what the painting looks like as long as it's a Hitler, and still others just don't talk about why they want what they want. And Snyder never asks.

There are a few customers who make it clear they think of Hitler as a hero. "We just overlook that," Snyder says. "You get the arrows from the flanks and you overlook it. This neo-Nazi movement is built up beyond what it is. All these kooks. I'm not a real historian about Hitler, but over 40 years you absorb all this. And still you don't understand him. You can't understand a dictator. They live within themselves."

Snyder won't identify most of his customers, but euthanasia advocate Jack Kevorkian, "Dr. Death," was one. Had a nice little Hitler collection there for a while. For what it's worth.

Snyder doesn't spend a lot of time trying to figure out Hitler the artist or Hitler the genocidal dictator. He has product to move. "Our job is to place these things with collectors who will really appreciate them," he says. Nor is he ever creeped out by having all this Hitler stuff all over his house, even in the bedroom. "You get used to creepiness, being a warrior. Which is unfortunate, but you do. I used to have mannequins upstairs, World War I aviators, and it just got too weird, my wife didn't like it, so I took them downstairs." Where they stare at him all day.

He will say this: "There is more of a fascination with bad guys than with good guys." Churchill and Eisenhower painted, too. "You don't see much of their work, and there's not much demand." But the demand for Hitler art shows no sign of waning. It's only when he starts going through old photographs of the war that Snyder relates all this to his own years in the military. "The further away you get from a terrible experience, the better it seems," he says suddenly. And he tears up.

From the case file of Billy Price v. United States of America, in which the late historian Sybil Milton provided a 35-page statement on behalf of the government, arguing that it was essential for the United States to maintain control of Hitler's paintings: "The only reason that the four Hitler watercolors have any value at all is because of the notoriety of the painter. An excellent case can be made that these drawings 'might revitalize the Nazi spirit or German militarism' (the language of the Potsdam Agreement of 2 August 1945), since they make Hitler look harmless and therefore could be used to disguise the horror and murderous brutality of Nazi Germany through Hitler's seemingly innocuous amateur art."

Hitler was 18 when he applied to the Vienna Academy of Fine Arts, planning to make his life as an artist. He flunked the drawing test and was rejected. He later wrote in Mein Kampf, "That gentleman [the rector] assured me that the drawings I had submitted incontrovertibly showed my unfitness for painting." Hitler's ability lay instead in architecture, the rector told the young man. By 1910 the 20-year-old Hitler was working in Vienna as a draftsman and painter of watercolors. William Shirer wrote in The Rise and Fall of the Third Reich that Hitler "sold hundreds of these pitiful pieces" to "petty traders to ornament a wall, to dealers who used them to fill empty picture frames on display and to furniture makers who sometimes tacked them to the backs of cheap sofas and chairs after a fashion in Vienna in those days."

Hitler's biographers generally give short shrift to the dictator's years as a failing artist. Alan Bullock's classic, Hitler: A Study in Tyranny, concludes that the future Fuehrer produced "entirely unoriginal drawings" and "grandiose plans." "He had the artist's temperament without either talent, training or creative energy."

In Hitler: The Path to Power, Charles Bracelen Flood writes that "Hitler had a flair for drawing; filling the apartment at 31 Humboldtstrasse with his sketches, he dreamed of becoming a great painter." But for most historians, the only moment that matters in Hitler's artistic career is the art school rejection. The key text is from Hitler friend August Kubizek, who wrote that after receiving the rejection, Hitler launched into a tirade in which "his face was livid, the mouth quite small, the lips almost white. But the eyes glittered. There was something sinister about them. As if all the hate of which he was capable lay in those glowing eyes . . . Hitler never ceased to feel ashamed of what his dream of being a painter had become."

In 1935, Hitler ordered the Nazi Party to find and obtain as many of his paintings as possible. Many were purchased from German citizens for prices of about two years' average salary for a German worker. The assembled pictures were stored in underground bunkers.

That's where they were in 1945 when U.S. soldiers found them. Five years later, Col. H.E. Potter, chief of the U.S. Army European Command's Historical Division, ordered the artwork confiscated and sent to Washington -- along with thousands of other works by Germans depicting the Nazi war effort, florid and melodramatic scenes of glory and sacrifice on the home front, and overt propaganda for the Nazi leaders and their policies. The U.S. government confiscated the whole mess and has spent half a century arguing with itself and outsiders about whether the art is dangerous and what to do with it.

As late as 1966, according to files at the Army Center of Military History, the military was telling collectors that it wanted to add to its collection of Hitler material. But in the 1970s, West Germany asked for the return of thousands of artworks still held by Washington. The Defense Department set up a committee of bureaucrats and art experts to determine whether the art should be given back. The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum argued against returning any art -- by, of or about Hitler and his henchmen. Such images could rekindle German nationalism and feed latent anti-Semitism and neo-Nazism, museum officials said.

Robert Wolfe, who at 81 remains the leading expert on the National Archives' collection of World War II materials, served on the committee and pushed for just about everything to be given back to the Germans. "I don't think we should encourage other people to hold on to loot," he says. In the end, the committee examined more than 8,000 pieces of art and, "aside from the Hitler paintings and one egregious painting of Adolf Hitler at the center of a Last Supper scene with German words underneath saying 'In the beginning was the Word,' we said they should send everything back. They are more apt to cope with their past if they hold their own archives."

Congress eventually complied with most of the committee's recommendations, but, Wolfe says, "in their usual ignorance," lawmakers refused to send back anything that showed a swastika or Nazi symbols or leaders. "They had this idea that if we sent the Nazi symbols back, all the Germans would become Nazis again," Wolfe scoffs. The Army kept about 200 Nazi-tainted works, a representative sample of about 250 pieces of the rest of the collection, and the four Hitlers; the remaining 8,000 or so works were delivered to the Germans.

No one wanted to give back Hitler's art. "Of all the things that could lead to neo-Nazi activities, it would be the Hitler paintings," Wolfe says.

"The attitude on the committee was, 'Everything goes -- except . . . ' " says another member of the panel, Marylou Gjernes, former curator of the U.S. Army Art Collection. "Germany still has very firm laws about what can and cannot be displayed. We didn't want to embarrass them."

So the watercolors sit in their drawer. Occasionally, a scholar makes an appointment to look at them. In the 1960s, they were put on display in a couple of touring exhibitions. But Gjernes and her successor, Renee Klish, are the only people who have had daily custody of the works for all these years.

Gjernes, now retired in Silver Spring, is no fan of Hitler's art, yet she has developed a certain fascination: "It's a side of him that no one expects. You don't expect to see an artist. It's very incongruous, and in a way, it's frightening. If someone who can perpetrate such evil can also have this softer side, then who's to say that possibly isn't in each one of us? Or that it won't happen again?

"I often looked at them and wondered, 'What if? What if he had been accepted into art school? What if he had gone into landscaping or architecture? Would World War II have happened?' It becomes a real psychological study."

Klish, custodian of the watercolors for three years, has inherited her predecessor's fascination with the works and exasperation with the attention they steal from the better art in the collection. Among the four pictures, there is only one human figure, a matronly woman standing alone in an eerily empty urban square in Vienna. Would the woman's utter lack of detail and the painting's odd absence of emotion stand out so sharply if we didn't know what had become of the artist? Is it possible to look at these antiseptic street scenes and see the roots of Hitler's obsession with cleanliness and his belief that his mission in life was to cleanse Germany and the world of the germ of Judaism?

Klish, who is Jewish, says she often wonders how her father would have reacted had he known that his daughter would spend her career handling Hitler's paintings and his gold-plated pistol -- an artifact at the West Point Museum, where she used to work. Klish focuses on the center's best art -- much of it produced by an Army program that hires artists to go into combat and "follow your own inevitable star," as the program's founder put it in 1943 -- trying to get it out where it can be seen, in museum shows, on book covers, in TV documentaries. There is no such outreach program for the Hitler watercolors, which have not been publicly displayed in many years.

Billy Price is a Houston businessman and pecan farmer who made his fortune in the compressor industry. A World War II buff, he realized at some point that Hitler, Churchill and Eisenhower were all painters and thought there might be something to learn from this fact. He delved into their art and ended up one of the world's foremost collectors of Hitler artwork. At one point in the 1970s, he owned 28 Hitler paintings and five sketches.

In 1982, the children of Heinrich Hoffmann, Hitler's photographer, sold Price an interest in the four watercolors Hitler had given to their father as pres-ents. Price volunteered to take on the

task of getting the pictures back from the U.S. Army.

Washington conceded all along that the pictures had belonged to Hoffmann, but said that treaties signed at war's end prohibited their return. "The government is going to prevent dissemination of Nazi propaganda," the Justice Department declared near the beginning of Price's legal odyssey.

But Price was undeterred, and in the early years, he seemed to hold the high ground in the dispute. "This is a simple dispute over the right to some personal property," U.S. District Judge Lynn Hughes said in an early opinion in Price's favor.

Not so simple. "Some representatives of the United States saw early on that this material should go back to its owner, but others decided to fight to the death," says Larry Campagna, a Houston lawyer whose firm has represented Price for 18 years. "They've thrown up every legal defense you can imagine, but if you're asking what the principle is behind their argument, I haven't figured out any principle, to be honest."

Jeffrey Axelrad has worked the Price case for the Justice Department for much of his career. "I've written more briefs on this than you can shake a stick at," he says. But he believes the case really is quite simple: "The Nazis were a horrible, evil regime, and one consequence of that is that they don't have any equity. The rights of Germans who were in Germany then were wiped out." In a brief he wrote in 1989, Axelrad put it even more succinctly: "The United States is entitled to retain Hitler memorabilia . . . because we won the war."

Price cannot accept that. He clings to the line in the Geneva Protocol, the law of war, that says "all seizure or destruction of works of art . . . is forbidden."

In the years in which the legal battle has moved from Texas to Washington and back and forth among at least four courts, Price has bowed to various other pressures. As his collection became well known, he was routinely denounced as a neo-Nazi. Galleries and museums refused his offers to display his Hitlers.

He says he spent $200,000 to publish 10,000 copies of his book about Hitler's artwork, only to see the book banned in Germany because Price refused the German government's demand that he characterize Hitler on the cover as the man responsible for the Holocaust. As a matter of principle, Price has said, he did not mention the genocide or any aspect of Hitler's politics -- pro or con -- in the book, but he once told an interviewer that "you owe something to those people who died in the concentration camps." Price has always maintained that his interest in things Hitler is purely a collector's passion, no politics involved. But collectors' passions go a long way: Price once traveled to Egypt just to be able to set foot on Goering's yacht, owned by a collector there.

In 1990, court records indicate, someone who didn't like the idea that Price's office held all those Hitler works put a bullet through the front of his place of business. Disheartened and scared, Price sold all 24 of his Hitlers, which had been valued at about $4 million. Price has since remained silent about his collection and lawsuit -- as is his policy, he did not respond to requests for an interview for this article. But the lawsuit continues, and Campagna says Price will not back away. He wants the watercolors or compensation for them, about $1.5 million -- far less than the $7.9 million the Texas judge granted him in 1989, before an appeals court reversed that ruling.

"He does this out of a sense of what he thinks is right," Price's lawyer says. "The concept that these paintings would foster a new round of Nazism is absurd, especially given the number of Hitler paintings that are out there. And there are some very beautiful paintings by Hitler, things that people should be permitted to see. There is something to be learned from studying art and history. These paintings show there's more than one side to this man."

Fine, says Axelrad: Anyone who wants a copy of the Hitler watercolors is welcome to come on down to 14th Street and make a photograph. But the government is not giving the pictures to Nazis or their descendants -- period. "This was not like a soldier looting," he says. "It is our government taking as part of the ordinary course of winning a war. Do you think there would have been any question about these properties if Hitler had kept his personal property rather than giving them to close friends?" The decision to keep the Hitlers, the Justice Department says, was a decision "about how to best wind up the war."

Hitler had his own solution for his artwork. In his will, he wrote that his paintings were intended "exclusively for the establishment of an art gallery in my native town of Linz. It is my heartfelt desire that this legacy be fulfilled." Clearly, he cared deeply about his erstwhile identity as an artist. Even as he hurled his nation into war, Hitler took the time to burnish his artistic credentials, designing his capital city, defining acceptable, "Aryan" art, declaring many modern works to be "degenerate" art by demented and subhuman artists. What offended Hitler most deeply was art that aimed to show the artist's state of mind rather than mirroring an external reality.

Hitler's own art seems to hide his state of mind quite well. But the search for clues is ceaseless. In his book Explaining Hitler, writer Ron Rosenbaum considers the theory that something happened in Vienna that "triggered Hitler's metamorphosis from struggling artist and harmless bohemian to the grim hater he became." In search of that moment, Rosenbaum went back to the Maennerheim, the still-functioning men's shelter where Hitler lived for three years of his lost period in Vienna. Rosenbaum found little of use there, except for a chance to reflect on his years of research, his countless visits to those who'd made Hitler their life's work. The writer found that many of the scholars had gotten "too close to the Fuehrer, so close that the magnitude of his evil became a distorting lens that makes any human perspective impossible. So close that the temptation, the inevitable tendency, is to begin looking at all history in terms of how it led to Hitler and the death camps. And a concomitant temptation . . . to view all evil in relation to Hitler's evil. A process that can end up turning Hitler into a kind of graven image -- a defining, if not ruling, principle of all being."

Similarly, those who collect Hitler's art eventually come to look at the dictator through the prism of his paintings. Charles Snyder and Billy Price and other collectors end up asking how an artist can be evil, how someone who devotes himself to and even creates beauty can be considered a person of pure malice? If there is an answer in Hitler's watercolors, no collector has found it.

But Berel Lang, a philosopher at the State University of New York at Albany, has explored an idea that brings together the artist and the architect of genocide. Writing about "evil as an art, the art of evil," Lang looks at the Nazi genocide and Hitler's lies about it and sees "an artistic consciousness of an overall design." The notion is shocking, even offensive. But Rosenbaum concludes that the Nazis were very much aware of their own wrongdoing, and to make their evil intent palatable to the masses, Hitler and the Nazis returned repeatedly to the Fuehrer's lifelong image of himself as an artist. In Lang's view, the mass rallies, so intricately staged; Hitler's studied performances in his speeches; his posing as his nation's art critic; his grandiose architectural plans -- all of this was "nothing if not art."

Lang believes that the design of the Nazi regime was the ultimate expression of Hitler's frustrated art -- the art his father had raged against; the artistic ambition that the academy crushed when it rejected him. Long after he gave up on his watercolors, Hitler continued to be an artist in his own mind, a mythmaker.

This, of course, is an academic point; surely Hitler didn't consider the Holocaust a work of art. Maybe you have to be an American to accept this retrospective analysis; maybe only Americans, who love to personalize history and politics, can shoehorn Hitler into our entertainment culture, turning his artworks into a commodity, a celebrity artifact.

Lang concludes that Hitler's was an "immoral imagination" at work, truly an "evil genius."

What remains from the evil genius's hand and vision did not end up where he wanted. Instead, Hitler's art is dispersed around the world, largely hidden from public view, in collectors' vaults and here, in a drawer in a windowless U.S. Army office in the basement of an ordinary office building at 14th and L, under the supervision of a nice Jewish curator whose first love is the very kind of "degenerate" art that Hitler ordered destroyed.

Marc Fisher is a Post columnist.