A federal appeals court has overturned a lower court ruling allowing Arlington to place a tax lien on an apartment building bought by East Germany to house embassy personnel and their families.

The opinion, issued by the 4th U.S. Circuit Court of Appeals, said U.S. District Judge Albert V. Bryan Jr. erred when he permitted the county to enforce a lien on the building for $55,000 in disputed taxes from 1977 to May 1979.

The East Germans have contended they are immune from such taxes. The Justice Department, acting to block the lien, brought the suit against Arlington that resulted in the ruling.

The three-judge appeals panel upheld this week a separate portion of Bryan's order that prohibited Arlington officials from trying to assess taxes after May 1979, the date of a pact between the United States and East Germany recognizing immunity from property taxes for buildings housing each other's embassy employes.

The United States and East Germany established diplomatic relations in 1974 and the East Germans bought the apartment building two years later. Arlington County won a judgment from Bryan in 1978 for unpaid taxes, but the East Germans protested to the State Department, citing international law and diplomatic immunity.

In its appeal, the county argued the Constitution does not give the federal government the power to exempt property from taxation by the states. The appeals panel rejected that argument, saying Supreme Court decisions have established the supremacy of the federal government's powers in foreign affairs. Even "the individual colonies . . . never possessed international powers," the appeals court said.

The appeals panel also said provisions of the Foreign Sovereign Immunities Act of 1976 run counter to Bryan's ruling that the county could enforce a lien for taxes allegedly owed by the East Germans before the May 1979 agreement.

In addition, the 4th Circuit disagreed with Bryan's decision that the federal government should be blocked from involvement in the issue, and said it was sending the case back to Bryan for further proceedings.