And now, something for the discriminating collector: a much-used turn-off-the-century gallows, complete with new noose.

It's destined for the auction block in Delaware to help pay off a $21,000 debt the state owes to a group of civil rights lawyers, unless the state can work out an agreement to save it.

Delaware lost a lawsuit involving overcrowding at its largest prison, and was ordered to pay legal fees to the victors. But the state said it couldn't come up with the money.

The unsatisfied creditors moved to take possession of the prison chief's office furniture, his state car, other items and the gallows.

An expert at New York's Sotheby Parke-Bernet, the proper auctioneer to the wealthy, had this to say of the possible sale: 'A gallows? Wonderful . . . yecchhh."

Delaware Deputy Attorney General John Parkins, who is trying to save the state property, has mixed feelings about the gallows.

"I say with tongue in cheek, I'm not sure what it means to us if we lose it . . . but we're not going to let it go without some defense of it."

Delaware has a capital punishment law, and hanging is still the official means of execution. But, according to Parkins, the prison engineer has pronounced for future executions, and a new one would have to be built if the state has need of one.

There is one man currently under death sentence in Delaware, but his case is on appeal to the state Supreme Court.

The gallows, which was used to hang 24 men and 1 woman, now lies dismantled in a barn on the grounds of the Delaware Correctional Center in Smyrna, about 45 miles south of Wilmington, according to corrections officials. It was last used in 1946.

The threatened auction resulted from a successful 1976 civil rights suit by prisoners, involving overcrowding at the correctional center.

Last June, a federal judge in Wilmington ordered the corrections officials to pay $21,000 in legal fees the prisoners incurred in bringing the case, Parkins said.

"Of course, the Department of Corrections has more than $21,000 in its budget," the state's lawyer said. But it cannot take funds appropriated for other purposes to pay the legal fees, and no funds have been specifically appropriated to cover the debt.

When the state had not paid by October, legal aid attorney Gary Myers, representing the prisoners, obtained a "writ of execution" for federal marshals to seize and auction some corrections properly including cars, desks, chairs, other equipment in the commissioner's office, and "a hanging gallows" and "one hanging rope."

The last two items were his clients' idea, said Myers. "It was their way of making a statement . . . People can read into it what they want."

A few days after Corrections Commissioner John L. Sullivan took office last month, a U.S. marshal marched in and handed him the writ.

"They were planning to come in . . . mark the stuff . . and take it," said the unruffled Sullivan "But our attorneys with some legal mumbo jumbo stopped it.

The Delaware attorney general's office has filed papers in court arguing that the state is immune from seizure of its property. A hearing on that issue is scheduled Nov. 9, but the state reportedly is trying to settle the matter out of court before then.

But the prospect of a gallows auction peaked the curiosity of Parke Bernet's Stuart Bennett.

"It would appeal to a very ah, specific kind of collector," he said. "Ah, what does one do with that anyway?"