Tales From the 'Mind-Blowing' Room of Accused Tenderloin Art Thief Terry Helbing

Tales From the ‘Mind-Blowing’ Room of Accused Tenderloin Art Thief Terry Helbing

By Joe Eskenazi, Tuesday, Jun. 8 2010 @ 2:59PM
Categories: Crime

Last week we wrote about how accused art thief Terry Helbing’s amazing single-room occupancy hotel room was the stuff of legend in the Tenderloin — even before the 53-year-old was arrested and accused of pilfering more than $100,000 worth of art.

Today we got a hold of Jeff Buckley, the Tenderloin Housing Clinic community organizer who recently visited Helbing. And, even a month or so after dropping by the accused thief’s room, Buckley was still clearly blown away. “I’ve seen a lot of hoarders’ rooms. I’ve seen bedbugs, cockroaches, and seen mold grow. But I have never, ever seen a unit like that,” he told SF Weekly. “And I don’t think I’ll ever see one again. It was mind-blowing how beautiful it was.”

Helbing’s room was small — as are all SRO hotel rooms. But it not only featured museum-quality artwork; Helbing had rigged up museum-quality lighting to accentuate his treasures. “He had very artistically put up this lighting system that brought out certain qualities to the paintings you wouldn’t have ordinarily seen when you came into the room,” recalls Buckley. “He played with shadows. I was speechless.”

In addition to an astounding job with lighting, Helbing had also somehow rigged up a pulley system to suspend his mini-fridge over his toilet. That, too, was a first for Buckley.

Helbing’s flat, other than the jaw-dropping artwork, was actually pretty spartan. He had no furniture save for his bed. He also had a TV. He had a closet, which he claimed was full of “other exhilarating artwork.” Buckley recalls a small grandfather clock and five or more lush, Persian or Oriental rugs stacked on top of one another. The paintings, naturally, were of stunning quality.

While reports of Helbing’s alleged thievery “make him seem like some kind of criminal mastermind,” Buckley says his former client was no Moriarty. Helbing had a tendency to repeat phrases again and again and again. And he also habitually stuffed wadded-up pieces of paper in his ears and wandered around town that way.

Helbing pleaded not guilty on Friday to one count of grand theft, two counts of being in possession or receiving stolen property and one count of burglary — all felonies. He is being held on $95,000 bail. Police cleared out his amazing room last Wednesday after he was arrested at the Botanical Garden one day earlier; staff there had witnessed Helbing wandering off with art from the Botanical Garden library at an earlier date and summoned police when he returned. A number of pieces missing from the library were recovered from Helbing’s flat.

“I hope Terry gets some mercy,” Buckley said of Helbing’s pending prosecution.

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