IT BEGAN quite innocently with the pretentious ambitions of the 10th Duke of Hamilton, who died in 1852. The duke had such a grand conception of the innate superiority of his race that he determined he would be buried in no ordinary manner. He bought and imported an ancient Egyptian sarcophagus of surpassing beauty in which to confide his mortal remains, outbidding the British Museum in his eagerness, and paying what was then the mighty sum of 11,000 pounds.

He erected a colossal mausoleum on the grounds of Hamilton Palace in Scotland to house his body together with those of his 11 predecessors in the line, saying that he looked forward to the day when 12 Dukes of Hamilton would rise in splendor at the Resurrection.

So obsessed was he with his death that he frequently used to get into the sarcophagus to see if it would fit, and made his last journey on earth to buy his own embalming fluid. His dying words were not among the gracious and witty which find their way into dictionaries of quotations; he was so worried about his length that he cried, "Double me up! Double me up!" and died. No amount of effort, however, could reduce his size.

Moreover, the sarcophagus was made of Egyptian syenite, the hardest of rocks, and could not be adapted to receive his body -- so his feet had to be chopped off the placed by his sides. But at least the modern pharaoh, though mutilated, was laid to rest in suitable style.

During World War I, the government advised that coal seams beneath Hamilton Palace should be worked out, a proposal that received ready assent in the patriotic mood that prevailed, with the result that in 1923 the structure was pulled down and the mausoleum began to sink into the ground. The bodies of the dukes were moved to the local cemetery and interred at dead of night.

A few years ago, the present Duke of Hamilton thought it might be interesting to bring the sarcophagus to the surface again for the delectation of the public, who regularly visited the empty mausoleum, now no longer private property but part of Strathclyde Park. Negotiations proceeded happily enough until it was realized that the sarcophagus, worthless and legally nonexistent as long as it remained underground, would become a possession and an asset subject to taxes as soon asit felt the light of the sun.

At first it was thought that the sarcophagus had belonged to a royal personage who had died in the period of Rameses II, which would have given it enormous value and made the expense worthwhile. But Cyril Aldred, the Edinburgh Egyptologist, was of the opinion that it belonged to a later period and was meant for a middle class young lady of no special fame, who lived in the period of the Ptolemys about 150 BC. This would fix its present value at between 10,000 and 15,000 pounds, not much more than the original cost.

Strathclyde Park's Joint Committee decided that they could not afford to buy it, which was just as well, since the Duke of Hamilton could not very well afford to sell it. The capital transfer tax payable, in addition to the costs of disinterment, cleaning and disposal of the old duke's body, would have together exceeded the purchase price.

The duke could not even comfortably give it to Strathclyde Park either, because, as a capital asset being "transferred," it would still be liable to tax.

The duke has no wish to possess another object and increase his liabilities; in fact, it is well known that many men in his position dream of ways in which they may be allowed to own less without being punished for the effort. Were he to keep his predecessor's coffin in his living room, it would be deemed part of his estate and his heirs would pay estate duty on it (or capital transfer tax, which has replaced estate duty in all but name) on his death, and at a higher rate, since it would be part of the total estate and would not be rated as an individual object.