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Riggs Artwork Is Headed for Auction Block

By Terence O'Hara
Washington Post Staff Writer
Friday, April 15, 2005; Page E01

In the fall of 1999, Riggs National Corp. was on its way to another disappointing year. Profit would fall nearly 50 percent, dragged down by shrinking profit in its core lending business and soaring spending.

That November, Joe L. Allbritton spent nearly $3 million of shareholder money for a painting by Edouard Manet of a medieval Italian entertainer in full costume. Several senior executives would come to call the painting, ruefully and only among themselves, "the clown."

Manet's 1873 "Polichinelle" is one of the pieces Riggs is selling before PNC takes over. (Courtesy Of Christie's)

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Manet's "Polichinelle," along with 13 other major works of art Allbritton and his wife bought in the past 20 years to decorate the offices of Riggs Bank, will go up for auction the first week in May at Christie's in New York. The total value of the Riggs collection, which includes works by Cézanne, Toulouse-Lautrec, Sisley and Fantin-Latour, is uncertain. But sources familiar with the sale, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because Riggs officials want to keep quiet the bank's ownership of the paintings so bargain-hunters do not lower their bids knowing that it is a forced sale, expect it to fetch at least $5 million. The paintings will be mixed in with a total of about 150 artworks.

Christie's estimates the value of "Polichinelle" at between $2 million and $3 million.

Allbritton is Riggs's largest shareholder and until 2001 was its chairman and chief executive. He and his wife, fellow former Riggs director Barbara, are among the world's most prolific private collectors of Impressionist art. They projected their passion for the art onto Riggs's walls.

"Polichinelle" (or Punch), one of many portraits that reflected Manet's fascination with actors and performers, hung in the 12th-floor executive dining room at Riggs headquarters at 17th and H streets NW downtown. According to Christie's, the painting is one of only two known Manet portraits of performers in private hands; the rest are in museums. Dated 1873 and signed "Manet" on the lower left, it is roughly 20 inches high and 12 1/2 inches wide.

A Riggs spokesman confirmed that Riggs was in the process of selling its corporate artwork, a step called for under the merger agreement between Riggs and PNC Financial Services Group Inc. He declined to detail which paintings were being sold.

How much Riggs spent on the paintings is impossible for an outsider to determine. Because any single painting wouldn't be material to its financial position, Riggs never discussed its art purchases with its public shareholders, nor did it disclose the purchases in Securities and Exchange Commission filings. What's more, any money spent on fine art would not show up as an expense on the income statement: Riggs "capitalized" the purchases, meaning they went directly on the balance sheet as an asset, and they never depreciated.

Though Allbritton may have loved his art, PNC made it clear from the beginning that it did not, including the pieces among Riggs's costly, non-income-producing assets, such as its Gulfstream V jet and its London executive apartment. Four days after announcing the merger in July, PNC chief executive James E. Rohr told investors on a conference call that Riggs was in "the process of selling a [Gulfstream V] right now, artwork, and condominium in London and a number of other things that really aren't germane to the business."

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