"Before my body is cold," a failing Fred Maloof once told his chauffeur, "my house will look like a plucked chicken."STOn the night of his death in 1972 at the age of 79, the scene at his 55 - acre Oxon Hill estate was much as he had predicted. It looked like moving day at a museum: truckloads of paintings, tapestries, status and other artifacts from his collection of 10,000 items were being carted away into the wee hours of the morning.

Five years later, the courts are still trying to determine whether the Maloof collection has all been accounted for.

It is a mystery worthy of Agatha Christie with a cast of colourful characters including, at the center. Naji Maloof, the old man's nephew who is now Calvert County's state's attorney.

It was at Naji Maloof's direction, by his own account, that artifacts were removed from the mansion on the night of Fred Maloof's death. In the years since then, six accounts of his estate have been filed in continuing proceedings in court but note has been approved. A county grand jury also conducted an investigation to determine whether items were stolen from the estate but returned no indictments. During that probe, Naji Maloof returned some S50,000 worth of items.

The confusion surrounding the estate of the Lebanese - born Maloof is in keeping with what several people close to him described as his way of life.

"Fred" Farid Negim Abi - Raji Maloof, a lifelong bachelor, moved to Oxon Hill Manor (build in 1929 by Under

Secretary of State Summer Welles, after 40 years in business. He was in off in Louisiana. He owned an art gallery in New York. He was in the stock market and in Florida real estate. He administered an estate for an Austrian countess and in return, acquired nearly 200,000 acres of land in Dare County, N C.

He was, his nephew Naji Maloof said in court papers,"extremely unncat," especially during his last years in the mansion overlooking the potomac. "He would live in one (room) until he got it completely full of junk . . . he couldn't even walk in," the nephew said. Then, "He would close that room up and move to another one."

In halfways, you might find three of four paintings stacked in front of each cabinet," said Peter Colasante, how an art dealer, who used to be sort of a curator for Maloof.

To people in Maloof's inner circle of servants and mansion hangers - on, the large ballroom was nicknamed "the maze" for its clutter of objects that made it almost impassable. Another room had a "B C Corner" filled with ancient artifacts. There was an "American hallway" with everything from a painting of Gen. George Armstrong Custer to the purported wedding chest of King Ferdinand and Queen Isabella of Spain. And so it went throughout the house.

In this unique setting - on an estate where John Hanson, first president of the American Congress under the Articles of Confederation, supposedly is buried, and where Franklin D. Roosevelt and Winston Churchill planned the invasion of North Africa - Fred N Maloof held fourth.

In his two decades at Oxon Hill Manor, Fred Maloof allowed perhaps a hundred people to live rent-free on the estate - a never-ending procession that included a Japanese portrait painter. Hungarian refugees, and numerous servants.

To his death, Maloof retained a fondness for young, mini-skirted women, according to court documents and he welcomed them to his estate, often showering them with gifts of jewelry.

On Sundays, he opened his vast collection to the public sometimes taking six or seven strangers on a tour, other times hosting groups as large as 150.

Besides curious citizens wandering in and out, Colasante said,"there was a continual procession of collectors and art dealers always interested in buying . . . (But) Fred was more emotionally attached to his objects of art than I've ever seen. They were in effect a surrogate family."

Through a complex series of deals in the late 1960s, Maloof had lost ownership of his mansion and surrounding property but continued to live rent-free at Oxon Hill Manor and to hold on to his collections. (The mansion has since been sold for $750,000 to the Maryland Park and Planning Commission.)

In his last year, however, the old man became convinced that he had been taken advantage of by too many people and became suspicious of everybody.

Every guest was now suspect, Maloof told William Harris, his caretaker-chauffeur, to "watch everybody." Indeed, one man was caught taking artifacts, but was not prosecuted.

Maloof was especially suspicious of Ginella McGinnis, the county register of wills who was also an antique collector and often played cards with the old man. "Don't let her out of your sight," Maloof told Harris.

About a week after Maloof's death, Harris told state police investigators, he helped her load a backagemmon table from the mansion into her car. She said the old man had given it to her.

McGinnis has declined to comment on her role in the Maloof case. Her lawyer said the only items she had from the estate were purchased legally from an authorized auction house that had obtained some of the artifacts.

Maloof allegedly even became suspicious of his own family, describing them, according to Harris as "a bunch of vulture just circling around waiting for me to die."

Maloof went on a final antique - purchasing trip to Florida in January and February, 1972, and returned in March to the upsetting news that someone had entered his locked walk in safe and shot bullets through four of his favourite paintings. Within days, Maloof suffered a stroke from which he never recovered.

He died a month later, on April 4, at a Washington hospital. Within hours, the scene at the mansion was chaotic as uncounted people began to assembie there.

Among them was Naji Maloof. According to his and others' later statements, Naji Maloof called a locksmith shortly before midnight to open and change the combination of the state that held his uncle's most cherished treasures. A rental truck was obtained and an unknown number of antifacts - six to eight truckloads by one account - was hauled off to various locations.

Harris remembered Naji Maloof packing antique coins, a music box, jewelry and chain into suitcases, "Naji madea statement we better take these valuables . . . for safekeeping," Harris recalled.

James D Garner, then a duputy sheriff who owned a gun business with Naji Maloof came to the mansion at Naji's request and stored paintings, ivory carvings and other objects in his house, according to his later statement to police and to testimony by another depty sheriff, one of some 20 off-duty law enforcement officers hired to guard the dead man's mansion.

In his deposition two months after his uncle's death, Naji Maloof said some items were taken by him and some by others whom he declined to identify. "I have told Mrs McGinnis everything I have done," he said. Two years later, in another deposition right after the grand jury probe, Naji Maloof refused to answer any questions about the night his uncledied and later events.

The grand jury probe arose from unrelated investigation conducted by state police into an oil - theft ring operating out of Andrews Air Force Base. Unbeknownst to Fred Maloof, the thieves were storing the stolen fuel on his property. For his role in that caper, caretaker - chauffeur Harris, who admitted he received some fuel for his ow use, got a $200 fine and one year's probation.

The five years of litigation over the Maloof estate has called into question not only the accounting for the old man's collections but also his will.

The will dated, Oct. 14, 1977, virtually disinherited all Maloofs except Soosan, Naji's mother. It left $200,000 to the Patrick Henry Boys Plantation, in Brookneal, Va, and the rest to a scholarship trust fund at Lincoln Memorial University, Harrowgate, Tenn. The trust fund was to be administered by the First National Bank of Washington, which also was named as estate exector.

The will - challenged by Naji Maloof, his brother and sister - was drawn up by a lawyer and witnessed by agents of the First National Bank of Washington.

The lawsuit contesting the will pointed to the interlocking roles of bank officials and their lawyers in alleging fraud, deceipt and undue influence on an increasingly frail and senile man to obtain his assels. But Martin Thaler, one of the bank's lawyers, recently said, "No one took advantage of Fred Maloof. he was a good businessman."

The will - challenged resulted in stacks of depositions, from which parts of this story are drawn, and an out - of - court settlement in May, 1973, that gave $120,000 to Naji Maloof, his brother and sister and their lawyers.

The First National Bank was formally named estate administrator in August, 1973. While the Prince George's County grand jury was investigating the estate for possible theft. Naji Maloof turned over to the bank in two shipments some $50,000 worth of paintings and other items. The bank, however, contends that more remains unaccounted for.

"Everything has been accounted for," said Jim Kenkel, a lawyer for Naji maloof. "There is nothing more to say."

But the last chapter has yet to be written, Naji maloof, who declined to be interviewed, is scheduled to answer questions from Orphans Court judges early next month.