Helbling was convicted of burglarizing the Botanical Garden library, but the dozens of other items adorning his room were treated simply as stolen property. His claim he bought the art from "somebody on the street" stands.

Terry Helbling flips through a book of Impressionist masterpieces while seated in a jail interview room. He opens the tome from the back — the words mean nothing to him. The names Cézanne, Degas, even Van Gogh — they mean nothing as well. Helbling notes that jail guards derisively call him "Picasso Man." While he realizes he's being teased, he has no idea who Picasso is.

Helbling pauses at Renoir's classic, La Loge. This painting, he claims, is in the Legion of Honor Museum. In fact, it is. He lingers over Manet's Gare Saint-Lazare and utters, "I like the way she's looking at you" — which he says about several portraits of women. Perusing Manet's Portrait de Stéphane Mallarmé, Monet's La Japonaise, and Renoir's Un Déjeuner à Bougival — one of the world's most famous paintings — he simply queries "How big?" When told it is 51 by 68 inches, Helbling loses interest in Renoir's masterpiece. It would never have fit in his room.

Helbling clearly had tastes beyond whatever was located near the front door. A pilfered $3,000 piece by Barbara McCann turned up in Helbling's apartment, while an original Joan Miró worth nearly nine times that was left behind at the gallery on the very same easel. Helbling didn't know art, but he clearly knew what he liked.

With the art thief both unable and unwilling to describe what he found alluring about his collection, SF Weekly sent photos of his assemblage to a bevy of art historians, describing Helbling only as "an eccentric San Francisco collector." It turns out this eccentric is a traditionalist.

"The thing that unites these works in my mind is they are all drawing on various kinds of conservative ideas about art and painting," says Gwen Allen, a professor of art history at SF State. "They are reworking tropes or styles of modernism. There's a combination of really weird, eccentric taste, but it's rooted in conservative, traditional ideas about what a work of art should be."

Adds Kevin Chen, curator of San Francisco's Intersection for the Arts, "There's nothing abstract at all about any of the works. People look like people, fruit looks like fruit, seascapes look like seascapes." That would explain why Helbling was uninterested in surrealist master Miró. If Helbling had collected poetry instead of art, everything would rhyme — because that's what poems do.

"He likes the ladies!" notes Nancy Elliott, an art professor at City College. The women of Helbling's collection, like the female protagonists of La Loge and Gare Saint-Lazare, often gaze enticingly at the viewer. The female portraits adorning Helbling's walls were "not threatening in any way," says Liliana Milkova, the curator at Oberlin College's Allen Memorial Art Museum. Helbling, in fact, surrounded himself with nonthreatening art: alluring women, still lifes, and nature scenes that provided a respite from his Tenderloin existence. The cheeriness of the paintings was ramped up a notch by their hyperbolic, primary colors. Milkova notes the preference for bright artwork would make sense if he had deteriorating vision.

A number of the experts described Helbling's collection as veering into kitsch. Michael Frank isn't so sure. When it comes to bad art, he ought to know — he curates the Museum of Bad Art in Massachusetts. Helbling's taste is "interesting ... I don't think this is necessarily bad art," he says.

Well, some of it may be. Frank's eye is drawn to a seminude female portrait by Georgy Kurasov. "Now that's the kind of thing I'd be interested in. It's neo-Cubist, but her butt is round," he says with a tone of befuddlement. "There's no doubt about the center focus point — it's her ass." If Frank saw the Kurasov in a thrift store, he'd no doubt "scarf it up." In the past, he's paid "$25, perhaps even $30" for art of this caliber.

When it was nicked from Don Cohen's gallery, the Kurasov was valued at $25,000. Getting it at a price Frank could afford — well, that'd be a steal.

Huddled in a doorway at Turk and Leavenworth streets on a frigid late February morning, Terry Helbling has descended from his castle in the sky. Not only are his speech patterns caught in a loop — so are his life patterns. He started out in San Francisco a dozen years ago as a homeless man fending for himself on the streets. And now he is doing so again.

Approached by SF Weekly, he lambastes the police, who "cleaned me out. They destroyed and ruined my life." He curses his "lousy attorney," Quigley, who he says was too cowardly to take his case to trial — a case even Helbling earlier conceded was utterly hopeless. The sole reason he took the plea deal, Helbling now claims, was to get out of jail. "I had no choice!" he shrieks. "I am innocent! I am innocent! I am innocent!" The only person not to blame for Helbling's situation, it seems, is Terry Helbling.

« Previous Page
Next Page »
My Voice Nation Help

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


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.


Cut his hands off.


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.


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


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.


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.

©2014 SF Weekly, LP, All rights reserved.