By Alan Farnham

(FORTUNE Magazine) – PAST A SIGN that admonishes visitors, ''Halter tops, tube tops, see-through clothes will not be permitted,'' past an armed guard, through a metal ( detector, down a linoleum-lined corridor, and behind bars at last sits Clifford Dixon Noe, self-professed Ph.D., BBA, LLD, JDS -- in the slammer. That so legendary a figure is caught and on display is sad, as if the Loch Ness monster were in a tank at Sea World. To the FBI he ranks among the most notorious white-collar criminals ever. Pronouncing sentence on him in 1972, a British judge declared: ''You can accurately be described as an international swindler on the highest level.'' Though the schools from which ''Dr. Noe'' says he gained his degrees are hard to find, his professional accomplishments are a matter of public record: convicted of forgery in 1971, mail fraud in 1977, and interstate transportation of forged securities in 1978. Born 58 years ago, the son of a Texas mortician, Noe started out selling insurance. He quickly graduated to venture capitalism, allegedly using phony securities to buy banks and other properties. He left prison in 1982 vowing to retire: ''I'm planning to do a little painting, enroll in a whole bunch of art classes,'' he said at the time. But in 1986, when a New Jersey insurance company with the inviting name Integrity came up for sale, temptation won out. Noe and his nephew Paul allegedly invoked a family precept: ''You don't need money; all you need is assets'' -- and not necessarily real ones. According to the government, they somehow accumulated more than $100 million of fake securities, bonds mostly, with which they could collateralize a loan. Next step was to approach a reputable New York brokerage, Thomson McKinnon, where an unsuspecting broker directed them to private investor Thomas Shaheen. Shaheen said he got the impression the Noes were looking not for an investor but for ''securities that could not bear close inspection'' -- in other words, more fakes. He called the FBI, which set up a little sting: An agent posing as a banker offered the Noes just what they wanted, an ersatz $10 million worth. Clifford tried to consummate a deal, was arrested, and left the country after initial charges were dismissed. He returned to his home in Costa Rica. Eventually the FBI tracked him down when he visited New Orleans in 1988 and sent him to jail in Philadelphia, where he is awaiting trial with nephew Paul, who is out on bail. A judge refused to release Dr. Noe on bail, even after one of his five children offered to accept custody of him. In prison Dr. Noe seems in good spirits. Smoking cigarettes and speaking in a mellifluous drawl, he says he was suspicious -- though not suspicious enough -- of the FBI's ''banker'' from the start: ''He wasn't dressed as nicely as a senior banker; not shabby, exactly, but middle class -- like an FBI agent.'' He dismisses the government's case and shows that he has at least kept pace with financial fashion. ''As I understand it, they are charging us with putting forward junk bonds to buy an insurance company,'' he says. ''I thought that's what junk bonds were for.'' A.F.