But not his own art.


Conversing with the gallery owners and workers whose goods ended up in Helbling's salon, one is struck by the similarity of their recollections. It's almost as if they are reading from the same script. "I swear to God, I slipped out for five or ten seconds to turn out the light," says Vanessa Viray, the co-owner of Paragraph, an Inner Sunset clothing store that lost a hulking portrait of a coquettish woman with large eyes.

"It was by our front door on an easel. It took him five seconds at the most," recalls Desiree Mitchell, co-owner of Gallery 444 on Union Square, who lost a $36,000 female portrait — also at closing time.

"It didn't take fifteen seconds," says Alexandra Ruhfel, director of the Martin Lawrence Galleries on Beach Street. "He probably just beelined — went in and out." In fact, SF Weekly managed to march into Ruhfel's gallery and march back out with an identical print of the purloined 38-by-45-inch idealized Paris street scene tucked under an arm in fewer than nine seconds. And when that work was stolen, it was hanging 20 feet closer to the door.

SF Weekly contacted every extant establishment whose wares were eventually seized from Helbling's residence. All of them confirmed the paintings were an arm's length from the door — if that.

"I didn't sell this stuff. It was in my room for my own amusement," Helbling says defiantly. "I never took it out in public to try and profit off it." And that makes him a most unusual thief — and the sort of man the city's galleries are vulnerable to. It turns out that you need not be Moriarty to make off with art priced higher than a Mercedes. The security measures we associate with museums aren't present in commercial art galleries — often there's no security whatsoever. Cameras are broken, not set to archive recorded material, or, as one gallery owner sheepishly admitted, simply plastic dummies.

"People don't steal art much. It's hard to resell. The average Joe Schmo knows it has no liquid cash value," says David Schach, co-owner of Dennis Rae Fine Art on Beach Street. "Who steals for themselves?" Five paintings from his gallery were discovered in Helbling's room. Snatched between 2004 and 2010, they are the only items Schach has ever lost. Helbling, however, insists that he never stole those paintings — or any others. He told both the court-appointed psychiatrist and SF Weekly that "somebody on the street" sold them to him. Helbling seethed that he was never "caught in the act."

But that's not true.


On Feb. 4, 2005, Linden Hayes Fine Art owner James Barrett was adhering to the script. It was closing time. He turned his back on the gallery's front door to do some paperwork. There were no cameras or alarms, let alone motion detectors. The door was unlocked and he was alone. And then Barrett heard the sound of a painting being hastily removed from the wall. He peered over his shoulder and was greeted by the sight of Terry Helbling making off with Laguna Coast, his arms spread wide like Cristo Redentor to accommodate the meter-wide canvas by celebrated artist Jean Mannheim. There was an awkward pause — the alcove Barrett used as his office was not visible from the front door, and Helbling certainly thought he'd entered an unattended gallery. Barrett broke the silence with a pointed exclamation: "What the hell?" And then everyone was running.

Burdened by 50 pounds of early-20th-century artwork, Helbling was easy prey. Barrett caught up with him and blocked the door. The two scuffled and the painting clattered to the floor. Barrett latched onto Helbling's collar, but the thief slipped out of his jacket and bulled through the front door.

A pair of 5-foot-7, bespectacled middle-aged men hurling one another into parked cars is not something you see every day along Hayes Street's upscale corridor. Helbling yelped to all who'd listen that he was being attacked, he hadn't done anything, he was just walking down the street when some madman tackled him. But no one was buying it. Barrett wrestled Helbling to the ground three doors down from his gallery. A pair of police officers soon parted the small crowd that had gathered around the combatants. Helbling shrieked repeatedly, "It's not me! You got the wrong guy!" according to the subsequent police report. Nevertheless, he was arrested and booked for felony attempted grand theft.

Helbling's attorney later persuaded Barrett to sign off on a plea deal. "His public defender told me he had some mental problems. He wasn't really as bad a guy as it seemed. He was remorseful for what he'd done," the gallery owner recalls. What's more, Helbling shocked Barrett by giving him $3,500 to repair the damage to the painting's gilded frame.

Where Helbling came up with thousands of dollars — repeatedly — remains a mystery. He served 82 days in county jail. His felony conviction was later reduced to a misdemeanor — and then expunged. (This rendered his bizarre statement that he doesn't "normally commit felonies" true. He was, however, convicted of misdemeanor sexual battery in 2000 — the judge found he "did willfully and unlawfully and for the purpose of sexual arousal, gratification, and abuse touch an intimate part of" a female accuser. A 2007 indecent exposure rap was dismissed via pretrial diversion.)

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My Voice Nation Help
8 comments
guest
guest

Im interested in seeing a closer look of the blue auto pic he stole.I knew his brother Ingemar ~ ~Very Well~~ who actually had a 1956 Chevy.Because I know of the family I find it interesting some of the art had common simularities with his life & family members.Im wondering if his choices in the art he stole were chosen subcontiously to surround himself with familuraritie.He would make a great casestudy! I know Ingemar made a great casestudy for me.I could spend hours watching his bazzar behavior patterns.Never quiet figured him out but would suspect Borderline Personality Disorder.Ingemar was a collector of other peoples items also.~Prior to discovering he was stalking me when we weren't together, I found leaving the top down on my corvet was an open invitation for him to claim my personal items as his own and then display them in his locked china hutch in his room.~ quite strange ~ I really know how to pick um ! lol

Eurosnbaht
Eurosnbaht

So our tax dollars paid for his 8 months in jail- now he'll be back out on the streets to bother society. THis guy needs to be in a locked, mental facility.

Jj
Jj

Cut his hands off.

Flemingrandolph
Flemingrandolph

His tastes in art lean toward Thomas Kinkade's style of traditionalism and away from a Jaon Miro.. As loopy as he is ; he'd probably right at home at a Tea Party rally.

Homer
Homer

That cat painting is super awesome! I would totally steal it.

Offkey
Offkey

So interesting, how someone who displayed conspicuous errant behavior, could fly under the radar for so long. Although now he appears unassuming, he was clever to use a fictious name to throw-off suspicion, plus he has a misdemeanor for deviant behavior and thief.San Francisco prosecutors should not underestimate him or consider him harmless.

Thank you to Joe Eskenazi for bringing attention to Mr.Heibling with recent photo, frankly he gives me the chills.

MJM
MJM

In the art world, of which I have been a part for twenty-five years, our 'industry' magazines sometimes refer to art-crazed collectors as having been born with the "extra chromosome." This charming story of an art-inclined fanatic bears little difference from the tales of obsession with which richer patrons will rake the earth for the right piece! I especially like this thief's attention to lighting detail, jerry-rigged from green banker's lamps -- more evidence he has been touched since birth to be a collector. I have personally known the author of "The Thomas Crown Affair" at Harvard, where he taught us screen-play writing. I bet Mr. Trustman regrets he did not hatch this tale too. It's so annoying when truth is more unlikely than fiction. Alas, we can regret the institutions harmed by theft losses. Sadly, Helbling will not be able from this point forward to legally "crash" their galas, as many of us will dishonestly continuing doing! Just look at the desperate sneaks in line at private parties at Basel Miami and Basel Basel.

 
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