In a locked room in a coarse wooden barracks at Auschwitz are four portraits of prisoners -- three Gypsy women and a man -- who never left the Nazi death camp alive.

From half a world away, an elderly artist named Dinah Gottliebova Babbitt can describe the watercolors with breathtaking clarity. She remembers how she struggled, in the winter of 1944, to paint under the watchful eye of Josef Mengele, who found that photos couldn't quite capture the details he wanted as documentation of the prisoners.

Get the skin color just right, the young Jewish girl was told. Pull back the prisoners' hair. The Nazi doctor's latest obsession demanded profiles. "Mengele was interested in ears," she recalls.

The artist finished a dozen such portraits before she was sent on what was to have been a death march. The 21-year-old Czechoslovak survived to see liberation, find new life in Paris and California and, in 1973, begin a strange and emotional odyssey to reclaim her art.

The portraits in Room No. 11, on the second floor of a building at World War II's most notorious concentration camp, are now at the heart of a sad duel between museum directors and the Holocaust survivor.

Gottliebova Babbitt, now a 74-year-old grandmother living near Santa Cruz, Calif., wants the paintings and believes that she is their rightful owner. "Mengele ordered me to do it as slave labor. But it was my work, my paintings," she said in a telephone interview.

She plans to place the art, she said, in museums where her two daughters and three grandchildren might visit. The U.S. Holocaust Memorial Museum would be an obvious home, she said.

"I was forced to part with these paintings. I feel morally, and for sentimental reasons, I want them. My children will never go to Auschwitz, but they could see them if they were in America," she said.

But museum officials say that the paintings were donated by another camp survivor and are thus the museum's property. Years after the war, they say, Ewa Krcz-Sieczka gave the museum the four disputed paintings, plus three others by Gottliebova Babbitt, all of which were taken out of Auschwitz by Krcz-Sieczka's foster family in the first free days of peace.

No survivor has ever asked for belongings to be returned, they said. No one at Auschwitz, as museum director Krystyna Oleksy said in an interview, plans "to pull them off the wall and give them back. . . . Our duty is to keep everything about the camp, because we think it is so important."

It is a case of property rights -- and museum rights -- that begs for a Solomon.

"Who's the owner? It's so hard to say," said Stanislaw Krajewski, co-chairman of the Polish Council of Christians and Jews and a member of the International Council of the Auschwitz Camp Museum. "I think the museum feels it has a moral right, and I'm sure she feels the same {about her own right}. It's sad . . . but it really raises a larger issue for all museums. If every museum has to give back everything that original owners want -- even what some countries now demand -- museums everywhere could become empty very soon."

Communication between Gottliebova Babbitt and the museum, since Auschwitz linked the artist to the paintings in 1973, has done nothing to clear up the dispute. After nearly a quarter-century of letter-trading, each side is frustrated and suspicious.

Auschwitz officials say they believe Gottliebova Babbitt wants the art for private use. Gottliebova Babbitt, who has written numerous times to the museum, said she is surprised that museum officials don't know of her dreams of putting the works in a different museum -- and in fact have no record of her claim on file.

Gottliebova Babbitt, a sharp wit who made a living in Hollywood by drawing Cap'n Crunch cereal cartoons, has a facile command of dates, places and persons from her search.

No one disputes that in 1943 Gottliebova Babbitt came to Poland with her mother from Theresienstadt, a Nazi concentration camp in Czechoslovakia. The teenager, who had studied art at a university, and her mother lived in Birkenau, the vast extermination center attached to Auschwitz. She painted murals there -- including one of Snow White and the Seven Dwarfs -- to amuse the hundreds of children who languished in family barracks.

Mengele, a physician whose brutal experiments with prisoners won him worldwide infamy, noticed her work. The doctor ordered her to the camp's Gypsy section and posed a question: "Do you think you can do portraits -- in color -- that would be true to the subject? The camera can't get the colors right."

"I can try," she said. Within days, she was Mengele's new charge.

In all, Gottliebova Babbitt said, she painted 11 portraits for Mengele, plus one of a small boy at the camp. She received extra white bread in return, food she said she shared with her mother and one Gypsy woman who wept as she drew. The woman, the artist learned, had just seen her 2-month-old baby die.

In January 1945, Gottliebova Babbitt and her mother were forced to march from Auschwitz. At war's end, they were in a German camp and in a few months were reunited with relatives in Paris. In 1947, Gottliebova Babbitt married and moved to California.

Gottliebova Babbitt knew other artwork of hers survived the Holocaust, but she never dared hope that the Gypsy portraits were intact. When Auschwitz tracked her down in 1973, the artist, by then a divorced mother of two working as an animator, knew without a doubt that she wanted her work back.

Gottliebova Babbitt traveled that year from Hollywood to Communist Poland to ask for her art. She was refused. Instead museum officials, eager to chronicle survivors' personal histories, interviewed her about her experiences. She returned home and wrote periodically, for the next seven years, in search of her art.

In a letter dated Oct. 12, 1980, art supervisor Tadeusz Szymanski said that in his opinion Gottliebova Babbitt had no legal claim to the paintings and that her desire to remove them was "something shameful." In a curious twist of reasoning, Szymanski said that it appeared only Mengele, who died in 1979, had a right.

Since the fall of communism in 1989, the museum has had new curators. Asked recently about the portraits, top museum officials said they were unaware of Szymanski's letter, which was mailed as a private missive.

"Outrageous" is how Oleksy, museum director since 1990, labeled Szymanski's sentiment. She said the museum had tried to contact Gottliebova Babbitt by letter at times, and she was puzzled why she never replied.

"I'm devastated," said Oleksy. "I've always felt badly that we wrote Mrs. Babbitt and she never responded. . . . {The letter from Szymanski} changes my attitude toward her. I was always told, over the years, that she was never interested in the museum . . . that she just wanted to use us.

But that doesn't mean that Oleksy would let the portraits go. She agreed last year that Polish law requires that Gottliebova Babbitt be granted copyright for the portraits and be paid for use or displays of the art. But Oleksy said she can't see a day when Auschwitz would ever give away any piece of its past -- even art that is kept in storage.

In a May 1996 letter, in which she discussed the Gypsy portraits, Oleksy said it would make "no sense" to take the portraits from the museum.

"People from all over the world come here to see only the originals," she said. "We have 100,000 shoes. Should we give some to the Holocaust Museum {in Washington} and Yad Vashem {in Jerusalem}? The Japanese are always interested. Should we give some to them?

"If we start this way, people would line up outside for the goods of their families. . . . You don't divide a museum. Either it's ours or it's not." CAPTION: Dinah Gottliebova Babbitt shows bust she is making in memory of a cousin who died in a Nazi camp.