Watching Dominic F. Antonelli Jr.'s real estate and financial empire crumble under a huge debt load and pressure from creditors evokes images of the hunted versus the hunters. First bankers, and now bank regulators -- like predators on the trail of a wounded prey -- are closing in for the kill.

In happier times, however, Nick Antonelli was a preferred customer of these hunters. He did a lot of business with them. His handshake was as good as a solemn oath. His signature on a loan was golden. His was the Midas touch in real estate deals.

But now Antonelli owes a lot of money to a lot of banks -- about $1 billion, according to most estimates. He not only borrowed huge sums for personal investments in real estate but also personally guaranteed loans to developers with less clout or no track record. And now that the commercial real estate market has tumbled into recession, Antonelli is left holding the bag while trying to save his personal fortune.

He and his lawyers have offered a dandy little proposal for working out private settlements with creditors. Most have indicated a willingness to accept the proposal rather than force Antonelli into involuntary bankruptcy. "It boils down to which of two ugly ducklings is uglier," quipped one banker.

Chase Manhattan Bank, First American Bank and Riggs National Bank obviously prefer the other duckling and have asked a federal judge to declare Antonelli and his wife bankrupt, an action that would force the Antonellis to sell off their possessions to satisfy creditors. The three banks are joined in the action by the Federal Deposit Insurance Corp. and the Resolution Trust Corp. The latter two are receivers, respectively, for National Bank of Washington and Baltimore Federal Financial, two failed institutions.

One reason for wanting to avoid a so-called "workout," or out-of-court settlement, suggested a lawyer who is not involved, is the administrative costs that would be involved. "These banks would rather collapse the {Antonelli} plan than go through private workouts," he theorized.

On the other hand, commented another observer, "No one ever gives high marks to a bankruptcy proceeding."

Either way, the resolution of Antonelli's debt crisis is going to be something of an ugly duckling.

Even those who have decided to hold their noses and go along with the private settlement plan have reservations that must be addressed. The overriding issue, it seems, is the rights of secured and unsecured creditors and how those rights will be preserved.

The sticking points of the workout plan, meanwhile, are provisions calling for the Antonellis to receive an annual allowance totaling $600,000 and a percentage of the net proceeds from their sales of properties they would be permitted to retain. Call them inducements to get Antonelli to liquidate. Call it a variation of the half-a-loaf-is-better-than-nothing theory, but Chase Manhattan, Riggs, First American, the FDIC and the RTC want their shares divided under the supervision of a bankruptcy court.

If that seems like a banker's version of hardball, it is. It's the legal counterpart of the angry loan shark's pay-up-or-else collection notice.

Riggs understandably is reluctant to go along with Antonelli's plan, having just reported a $64 million deficit for the fourth quarter of 1990, and a $57 million loss for the year. To make matters worse, Riggs also cut its dividend in half at a time when Antonelli is proposing a settlement with creditors that would guarantee him and his wife an annuity of $600,000.

Far from being some naive or hapless victim of a conspiracy, Antonelli knowingly put himself at risk in the face of strong evidence that the real estate market was being overbuilt. Like so many other real estate developers and investors flushed with billions in borrowed money, he chose to test the limits in the real estate binge of the 1980s. His was a high-risk game of Monopoly and he apparently played it with a greater zest than most.

Now the bills have come due and, unlike a Monopoly player, Antonelli can't just pick up the pieces and put them in a box after the game is over. He risked real money on real property with inflated values, not some make-believe property on the boardwalk. His was a game of high risk and high finance and he played it exceptionally well within the rules agreed to by Chase, Riggs, First American, National Bank of Washington and the others.

If Chase didn't understand the rules, then it shouldn't have agreed to let Antonelli play with more than $50 million. If Riggs has had to cut its dividend, it's because it -- like so many of its competitors -- failed to react soon enough to the early warning signs of impending disaster in the commercial real estate market.

More than 30 million square feet of office space sits empty in the Washington area -- monuments to greed, poor judgment and questionable loan policies. Banks are as responsible for the real estate glut and related problems as the Antonellis of the region. Antonelli's deals were acceptable in the past but are being spurned now. Is there no honor among bankers and developers?

What Antonelli has on the table may not be to everyone's liking, and for good reason. There still is time, however, for people to agree on an equitable resolution of the matter, somewhere between involuntary bankruptcy and Antonelli's workout proposal.