One combatant says it is a $250,000 French Impressionist original. The other dismisses it as a "nice painting of haystacks," and possibly "a pretty good" copy. Either way, both sides are fighting it out in a Baltimore courtroom to gain final possession of the painting signed "Claude Monet."

The oil painting in pastel colors has been the centerpiece in a six-year legal saga involving bounced checks, entreaties to the FBI, nationwide art appraisals, court rooms in two states,t the work of at least seven attorneys and sleuthing by one private eye.

On Thursday, a Baltimore judge is set to order that the painting be held for safekeeping in a local art gallery while Baltimore collectors Edward and Cyrile Strauss and retired Norfolk businessman Charles Burroughs prepare for legal battle over its ownership.

"It is a tragedy in the art world," Cyrile Strauss said yesterday, describing the tangled legal proceedings over the painting that she insists, is Monet's "Haystacks in the Evening."

Burroughs maintains. "The whole thing is perfectly ridiculous," and says he just wants the painting back "to hang on the wall."

The troubles over the painting began in 1973 when, the Strausses say, they sold it to Norfolk art dealer Benjamin Robinson for $55,000.

A few days later, according to Strauss, Robinson's check bounced, and Strauss went after his painting. As time went on, he sought help from three different lawyers and, at one point, from the FBI, which he said told him, "the whole thing is so bizarre they couldn't get involved."

Strauss ultimately sued Robinson for the $55,000. Robinson, according to an affidavit filed in that lawsuit, insited the painting was not worth that much because it was a fake. For that reason, he said in his affidavit, he stopped payment on the check.

A judge, however, ruled in Strauss favor in January 1978 and Strauss then went to the Norfolk courts to get either his money or the painting back.

Enter Charles Burroughs. Unbeknownst to the Strausses, Burroughs claims he had bought "Haystacks" from Robinson in May 1976 for $2,500, believing, as he was told, that the painting was a copy.

"I wouldn't want the thing if it was real. I can't afford anything that rich," Burroughs said yesterday in his southern drawl.

Burroughs recalled that in November 1977, Robinson came to him asking to "borrow" the painting because it was needed as evidence in a Baltimore lawsuit.

"I lent it to him, and haven't seen it since," Burroughs said. Robinson could not be reached for comment yesterday.

It was also in November 1977, the Strausses claim, that they finally retrieved the painting from Robinson, and brought it happily back to their Baltimore collection of paintings.

Things were fine until a man walked into the Strausses' gallery last December and handed them a document ordering them to appear in court because a man named Burroughs wanted "his" painting. "We almost had a heart attack," recalls Cyrile Strauss.

She says she and her husband have hired a private detective to investigate Robinson in Norfolk.

The painting, she says, has been looked at in Washington and New York City by the foremost experts, one of whom "dropped to his knees and said it was one of the most beautiful Monets he had ever seen."

Burroughs describes the painting as "pleasing to hang on the wall" and wants it back for his summer home on Virginia's Eastern Shore.

Both sides agree that experts undoubtedly will be brought in to determine the painting's authenticity.

As far as Cyrile Strauss is concerned, the whole business is a "tragedy." But she adds: "Maybe the legend will add to the painting's value."