Queried about his client, Terry Helbling, attorney Kenneth Quigley rhapsodizes an artful response: "Neurotics build castles in the sky, psychotics live in them, and psychiatrists earn the rent. Terry lived in a castle in the sky for a long time." Today, he will crash to earth.
It goes down on a hazy late January afternoon, when Helbling waddles into a San Francisco courtroom. While he may be the city's most notorious art thief, the Tenderloin resident will never be mistaken for Thomas Crown. Helbling, 53, is short and balding with a dusting of a white beard. His posture is stooped, and he shambles in his oversize orange jumpsuit. Also, he has an affinity for cramming things into his ears; Quigley, his court-appointed counsel, curtly yanks out the wads of balled-up tissue like an impatient mother and drops them into Helbling's shackled hands.
As the list of more than a dozen galleries, museums, and libraries the art thief is now forbidden to set foot in is read aloud in court, Helbling moans and whines. "You mean I can't go to the Academy of Sciences?" he sniffs. No one answers — instead the judge continues droning off the places where Helbling is no longer welcome after their wares turned up in his apartment. Helbling grudgingly accepts the plea deal that will shortly free him from county jail after the eight months he has already served. The judge wishes him luck and beckons a sheriff's deputy to lead the newly minted felon back to his cell.
Showing a burst of agility belying his wizened appearance, Helbling skips away from the deputy and frantically calls to his lawyer. "Quigley! Quigley! When you gonna talk to me?" Palpably frustrated with his needy client, Quigley snaps back, "As soon as I can, Terry."
A wave of derisive laughter emanates from the assembled defendants, family members, and others whiling away the afternoon at criminal court Department 23. "Savage!" one chuckling man exclaims as Helbling is hustled out. The door slams behind him. One headline that day will read, "Sad Tale of Tenderloin Art Thief Comes to a Close." Terry Helbling has left the public eye.
For years, Helbling — a former homeless man with an IQ between 60 and 72, according to court documents — had craved acceptance and attention. He crashed members-only botanical garden society soirees and boasted between mouthfuls of crackers and brie about his valuable art collection. His neighbors at the Cambridge Hotel — a residence for the formerly homeless — recall Helbling frequently ambling through the front door brandishing an objet d'art or curio and bellowing, "Look what I've got!" He invited building staffers and neighbors alike to visit him in Room 601, where art festooned the walls from floor to ceiling and he lived like a Tenderloin pasha.
And yet, even after police spent hours taking apart the room Helbling had taken years to put together, those who thought they knew him were shocked at the notion that this mentally retarded man with no income and some $200,000 worth of art in his tiny flat had been stealing. Like many of the paintings hanging on his walls, Terry Helbling was himself a trompe l'oeil. He had fooled the eye.
Terry Helbling's room was 10 feet by 10 feet, just like virtually any other single-room-occupancy residence in the Tenderloin. And that's where the similarities begin and end. The first thing to hit your eye if you walked in might be that his mattress was atop the most gorgeous Oriental rug you've ever seen. And that rug was on top of another rug. And so on, and so on — Helbling slept on a pile of lush rugs as if he were re-enacting a scene from The Princess and the Pea.
Police reports would describe Helbling's room as resembling a "gallery." But that isn't entirely accurate — art terminology is evidently no longer offered at the police academy. No gallery would pack 50 items into an area the size of a cubicle, like a Buca di Beppo restaurant. Viewing photos of Helbling's domicile, several art historians described the setup to SF Weekly as being "in the salon style."
And Helbling's Tenderloin salon was nothing if not eclectic. Still lifes, landscapes, and, jarringly, a painting of an anthropomorphic kitty with pert, human breasts and a pickle on its head dangled alongside gaily decorated Italian vases expertly fastened to the walls. Stuffed fish and delicate decanters shared space with Russian dolls and a breathtaking, gargantuan photo of a Chinese mountain vista. The room's microscopic closet was occupied by a pair of grandfather clocks, one of which had a small skeleton dangling from its pendulum. In fact, several animal skulls dotted the room, including the cranium of a male Northern elephant seal — which had been swiped from the aforementioned California Academy of Sciences in 2007.
The ensemble was lit from above by a series of green-shaded bankers' desk lamps, jury-rigged to hang vertically on the walls. But the lamps didn't just illuminate the works of art on display — they enhanced them. Helbling says he modeled the lighting system after the ones he saw at the Legion of Honor and de Young museums. Nobody taught him anything about the principles of museum presentation. And he certainly didn't brush up on remedial electronics from a book, as he's functionally illiterate. "All paintings got lights," he tells SF Weekly. He was born in Corpus Christi, grew up in Houston, and still speaks with a low-pitched, Southern drawl not unlike Billy Bob Thornton's. "It makes the color and texture of the artwork come out better. Mostly everything I do myself. It comes to me naturally. I didn't have no help from nobody."
Helbling has a tendency to repeat the same phrases — and then, as time passes, return to earlier subjects and repeat those phrases yet again. He's on an endless loop. But it is difficult to get him to say what he does not wish to say. Throughout a series of interviews, he steadfastly refuses to admit any guilt regarding his felony charges of burglary and receiving stolen property, even after he had pleaded guilty and been convicted. He uses vague terms like "what I am accused of" and "the things they found in my room."