Since Haiti's former president Jean Claude Duvalier fled into exile earlier this month, the lingering question most frequently asked here is: How much money did Duvalier take with him?

While the exact amount of Duvalier's fortune may never be known, most knowledgeable estimates place it somewhere between $200 million and $500 million.

According to the knowledgeable sources here, Duvalier's fortune is considerably less than the $960 million often mentioned in casual conversations with Haitians here.

The only thing known with some certainty is that Duvalier left the government coffers almost completely dry. One informed foreign diplomat estimated that Haiti could have as little as $1 million in cash reserves -- a mere pittance for a country with a $250-million annual budget.

"The damned thing is dry, dry as a bone," said one Haitian businessman here who has friends on the ruling National Council.

Government officials have refused to speculate on exactly how much money is left until a full count is completed.

But Haiti has always operated on budget deficits and bookkeeping here is practically nonexistent by American standards, so analysts say it may never be known exactly how much money Duvalier got away with.

Duvalier's fortune was widely reported here to have been spirited out of Haiti and into bank accounts in Switzerland over a number of years since he took office in 1971, when his father, Francois Duvalier, died.

According to banking sources, Haitian investors accounted for more than $250 million deposited in American and offshore Caribbean banks last year, and Duvalier and his family members are widely assumed to be among those depositors. But deposits in Switzerland are kept secret, and would presumably be far higher -- particularly if Duvalier is directly involved.

On the morning he fled into exile, reporters waiting at the Francois Duvalier International Airport saw trucks arriving shortly after midnight packed with Gucci bags and Louis Vuitton luggage -- despite a two-suitcase limit imposed by the United States which provided the plane for his departure.

Duvalier is known to own three expensive properties in France, a chateau in the Val d'Oise, a villa in the Paris suburb of Neuilly, and an apartment on the Avenue Foch in Paris.

He is also reported by informed sources to own property in Southern California and an apartment in Manhattan's Trump Tower.

Here in Haiti, Duvalier owns a ranch, two villas and a new mountain retreat, where the Duvaliers are said to have begun spending more time than they actually spent at the gleaming white palace at the center of the capital.

Estimating the size of the Duvalier fortune is also problematical since the figures do not include the fortune amassed by his father-in-law, Ernest Bennett, since Duvalier's 1980 marriage to Michele Bennett.

Ernest Bennett was a near-bankrupt coffee grower before his daughter married Duvalier. Since the marriage, business leaders here said Bennett used his new-found palace connections to avoid paying millions of dollars in taxes on coffee exports. He later accumulated enough wealth to buy a controlling interest in Haiti Air, a passenger line that took over one of the daily flights between here and New York, and Air Haiti, a freight carrier. Bennett also became the island's principal importer of luxury BMWs and Mercedes-Benzes.

Michele Duvalier was also well-known for her international shopping sprees. Last November, the French press reported that Michele took 14 aides with her on a buying spree in New York and Paris that reportedly cost nearly $2 million.

Despite the widespread corruption here, one informed Western diplomat said last week, the funneling of U.S. aid money into the pockets of the Haitian rulers was not as pervasive as is popularly believed. Most U.S. aid is in the form of food aid, the diplomat said, and it is distributed not through the central government but through church groups and private relief agencies.

Still, stories are widespread of food marked "U.S. Government-Not for Sale" being sold on street corners.