Count Ricardo Agusta, young heir to a large Italian fortune, still shudders when he thinks back on the day police called his attention to the small van parked outside his house in Milan.

Police had opened the van and found inside cotton wadding, bandages and masks: the tools of the kidnapers who in recent years have terrorized the upper strata of Italian society.

Two days after the discovery of the van, Riccardo Agusta started a new life in the United States.

Landing in Washington, he found to his surprise that there were already hundreds of people here much like him. They had come from all over the world -- from Europe, the Middle East, South America -- some of them to preserve their lives, many others to preserve or increase their fortunes.

Almost all had come here, like Agusta, looking for a freedom they feel is disappearing in their own countries:

The freedom is to be rich.

Five years after his arrival in the United States, Agusta, 29, has given up the bodyguards who once accompanied him everywhere. He has bought a large, white-columned house in Arlington, started an import-export firm, and married 22-year-old Monica Consorti, who is heiress to several billion lire in her own right. (They met a year ago on a blind date only to discover that, she, too, had come here to escape Italy's epidemic of kidnappings.)

Though they might have picked any city in the United States in which to live, they have settled here. "Because it is beautiful," he says. "Because," she says, "it is, you know . . . cozy."

The comfortable international city the Agustas so enjoy today did not exist as recently as a decade ago. Its origins can be found along embassy row, among the employes of such institutions as the World Bank, and the international students of the universities.

But Washington did not really begin to develop as an international city until the mid-'70s when the world started growing dramatically smaller and increasingly more hostile for the rich.

Washington, with its government-spawned economic stability and declining crime, struck many jet-setters as "cozy" -- safe. And with the new Kennedy Center and a proliferation of museums and galleries along the Mall, the city at the same time began to become culturally respectable -- a city with something to offer those who craved sophisticated entertainment.

As a center of world power, it was also inevitably, if perhaps surprisingly slowly, becoming a center of world trade and investment.

What had once been a tricle of foreign money and the foreign moneyed into the metropolitan area had become a steady stream. No less than 30 major downtown Washington buildings are owned by foreign investors. The presence here of Europeans, South Americans and Arabs, with their cash, their values and interests are further changing the face of Washington.

A new generation of restaurants and boutiques, nightspots and hotels and, less conspicously but perhaps even more importantly, investment companies and consultants -- have sprung up to accommodate and reflect their tastes.

In the process, the tastes of Washington as a whole, whetted by these few establishments, have become more cosmopolitan and international.

The city thus grows even more cozy" for this foreign elite, and more of them come here every day.

When Georges F. Mosse left for Washington on the Concorde last spring, there were still those of his associates in Paris who taught him something of a pioneer. Despite its few development, the U.S. capital continues to suffer in some quarters from the image it once had as an overgrown hick town with a lot of big city crime.

"I received calls from people when I was coming here," Mosse said. 'What are you doing?' they would ask me. 'What is this? You cannot go out at night.'

"That was true 10 years ago," he smiled. "But . . ."

Mosse was looking to buy a hotel. He had been the general manager and part-owner of three major Paris hotels and the famous Cafe de la paix. He had studied the market in the United States and focused on Washington because he felt this city was ready for his European concept of hostelry. Hotels like the Madison and the Fairfax had already proved that.

Mosse bought, finally, not just a hotel but a Washington landmark. The venerable but dowdy old Haydams across Lafayette Square from the White House was sold to Mosse for a reported $13 million to $15 million. Today a visitor to the dimly, lit cocktail lounge -- where once only hotel guests, tired-looking bureaucrats and lobbyists from nearby offices came to drink and listen to piano music -- is likely to find Mosse and his wife chatting amiably over a couple of drink's while their two young children, immaculately dressed in the French style, wander through the room. Sometimes the children stop to talk with the waitresses, who all know them.

If there have been few obvious physical changes in the establishment, there is certainly a difference in food.

"It's not only a European concept, it is a way of life," said Mosse. "People have grown tired of the homogenized and sterile hotels. People prefer to be in a small hotel -- pay maybe $5, $10, $20 more -- but not be anonymous."

Many of the people who can afford to stay in such establishments when they come to Washington -- as much as they want to be recognized and catered to by the staff -- retain a passion for anonymity insofar as business is concerned.

There are several reasons for such secrecy. Many investors, foreign or domestic, consider it only good business to keep a low profile when stakes are high. But for others there is one big reason to stay anonymous.

In discussions with Washington-area investment consultants and developers, it is only after the talk of Washington as a remarkably stable market, a great place to preserve our money, a bargain for foreigners and a lovely city with parks and trees -- all of which are real enough considerations -- that the following term may quietly enter the conversation:

Black money.

The term refers to money made by people overseas, especially by Europeans in Europe, that for one reason or another they do not want their governments to know about.

Several nations have strict limits on the amount of cash their citizens can invest abroad. Sometimes money is literally smuggled out of the country, but there are numerous, more subtle ways to circumvent the currency laws.

A group of Taiwanese, for instance, are now negotiating to buy a large downtown Washington building, according to one broker familiar with the deal. Normally they would not be allowed to send enough cash out of their own country to complete the deal here.So they are currently in the process of buying goods in Taiwan, which they will ship to the West Coast, sell for the cash they need and then make the purchase with it here, the broker said.

Investors may set up holding companies in Luxembourg or Liechtenstein, the Netherlands Antilles or another of the countries whose banking and business laws are built on the prin ciple of low taxes and high secrecy.

Through these companies, in a variety of complicated and not-so-complicated ways, they then proceed to invest their money overseas -- which for them may well mean Washington.

"Funds are laundered through any combination of credit corporation. A black dollar can get very clean in Switzerland," said Michael Farnum, of Weaver Bros., the real estate firm.

George Voris, the president of the commercial brokerage firm of Coldwell Banker Co., has counted at least 32 downtown properties now known to be owned by foreign investors. How many of these were bought with black money is impossible to say.

Some have known institutional owners and clearly were not. The L'Enfant Plaza Hotel, for instance, is largely owned by the pension fund of British Electricity Supply, which put $10 million into it in 1977. The Kuwait Investment Company paid $22 million for the 12-story Columbia Plaza office building at 2400 VirginiaAve. NW in 1975, and the Watergate complex across the street was originally constructed in the 1960s with funds from the vast Italian financial concern, Societa Generale Immobiliare.

But many more buildings have been financed or bought through anonymous holding companies.

That does not necessarily mean black money was involved. But there are some developers in Washington, like Bob Holland of Holland & Lyons, who talk quite frankly about their clients' reasons for secrecy. Holland, of course, does not go so far as to mention names.

"If you ever printed a name," the people on the other side could end up in jail," Holland said. "Half of the people I deal with are known names in their own countries. Two of them are in government. There are some I can't even be seen eating with in public. I have to create tiers" -- through the network of anonymous overseas corporations -- "to protect them."

Holland is careful to add that he avoids entering into deals with anyone he believes might have run afoul of America's tax laws. His investors pay the same taxes anyone else would have to, as far as the U.S. Internal Revenue Service is concerned.

But since the foreign investors are anonymous, there is no telling how dark their dollars would be considered in their home countries.

When the Vermont Building at 1100 Vermont Ave. NW, was sold for $2 million in 1977, for instance, all that the seller, lawyer H. Max Ammerman, said he knew about the identity of the buyers was that "they spoke French. I speak French and we got along just fine, but their accent was definitely Belgian."

Ammerman also sold the Imperial Building at 1441 L St. NW. The buyers paid $5 million, but all that Ammerman could say about them was that he "feels" they were Arabs. The names of "the people who signed the papers that had to be signed sounded that way" he said. But, as is customary in many such transactions, those were not the names of the buyers.

The office building at 1750 K. St. NW was sold to a holding company named Basilea Inc. that paid $7 million of the $12.8 million purchase price in cash. The investors are thought to have been West Europeans.

Even the Chester A. Arthur Building which houses the headquarters of the U.S. Immigration and Naturalization Service, was recently sold to an anonymous group of Dutch investors for more than $12.5 million, according to the broker who handled the sale.

As one international tax lawyer put it, describing the innumerable routes through which black money can pass from overseas to the United States, "This is a new kind of immigration."

While Washington's foreign elite on the whole would rather stay out of the spotlight, one may catch glimpses by talking to those who cater to them. Consider this account from the employes of a large limousine company here:

Much of the clientele at this particular service is Arab, though Europeans and South Americans also like to hire the long, low cars with bars, televisions, telephones and typewriters.

"Not too many come here to shop," said one limousine service employe."But the Arabs do shop a lot. They buy a lot of junk merchandise: box loads of toys for the kids, and household things, like dishwashers and dryers, cameras and televisions." Most of which at one point or another are loaded into the limos.

For nighttime entertainment, there are the discos and private dinners. But there are also a few who will send a limousine over to 14th Street to pick up a woman and have her brought back to their rooms. Of course, the drivers are expected to know their way around.

"I know some girls who will do it," said one limousine service employe. "The Arabs pay. They're willing to pay a lot -- $500 to $1000."

But the biggest atraction in Washington for the wealthy foreign visitor is not on 14th Street, nor in the stores, but on the Mall. For all nationalities, according to the people who drive them around, the wealthy of the world prefer the Air and Space Museum.

"It is," as one former driver put it, "a fantasy trip for them" that even their money can't buy.

A fantasy trip. For many of the wealthy who flee their homelands, even temporarily, that is what the Washington area sometimes seems, and indeed what the United States sometimes appears.

For those with money there is the freedom here, as there is in few other countries, to do almost anything -- not in an isolated compound not on an island they happen to own, and not because they try to own the authorities -- but because they are, quite simply, free.

Few people have loved that freedom here with more enjoyment than the Augustas since they escaped the kipnapers of the Mafia and the kneecappers of the Red Brigades.

"We go to Italy about three times a year," said Monica Augusta, shaking her head slightly.

"It's like going to prison with all of your family," added her husband. The constraints of the old world arise not only from new threats, but from old customs. In Italy, said Monica Agusta, one dresses one's class.

"Here we might go to a movie in a T-shirt and jeans, or take a raft trip, and nobody watches you or takes care," said Riccardo.

"Here we have a motor home. We go traveling," said Monica. "We went to the Gulf of Mexico." They drove 5,000 miles in two weeks, her husband noted.

At every opportunity, they visit amusement parks. "We are," said Monica Agusta, "experts on roller coasters."

Many of the foreign elite -- both the resident and the visitors -- also are frequent guests at Washington parties. And partly as a result of this new international presence, the social fabic of Washington has been changed.

A decade ago, the "right" social affair had one ambassador, one senator, one congressman, one State Department official, one White House official, one columnist, a controversial author, and one smashing-looking female.

Today, dinner parties include far more out-of-town personalities, people who passed up the capital in the past but now come here.

One reason for the increase in wealthy and socially powerful foreign guests at Washington parties in the possibility of running into such personalities as Henry Kissinger or Elizabeth Taylor who lived or maintain permanent residences here.

"The more people get to know about Washington, the more people are coming," said investor Massoud Khan. "They are finding it to be a more attractive place than any other."