Art heist may crack other cases 

A self-professed “art collector” detained at the San Francisco Botanical Garden on Tuesday may have built his collection of paintings, rugs and artifacts during a series of thefts throughout The City that spans years.

Police arrested Terry Helbing, 53, about 7 p.m. at the Helen Crocker Russell Library of Horticulture at the Botanical Garden in Golden Gate Park, according to police Officer Albie Esparza. A worker there had recognized Helbing from a burglary in April, in which about $15,000 worth of art was stolen.

Following his arrest, police served a search warrant at the Cambridge residential hotel at 473 Ellis St. early Wednesday morning, where they recovered dozens of paintings and rugs, along with other small pieces of art. The total value is expected to exceed $100,000.

Helbing allegedly stole five paintings by a local artist, two 100-year-old paintings from a permanent collection and 33 prints for sale from the library, according to San Francisco Botanical Garden Society Executive Director Michael McKechnie.

Workers recognized Helbing because he went to previous meetings and acted suspiciously, McKechnie said. During one membership meeting, Helbing walked off with a painting on display in front of everyone. He put the painting back after he was confronted.

“He was quiet, a loner,” McKechnie said. “He talked about being an art collector.”

Police said items found during the investigation will likely be involved in other crimes in San Francisco as victims come forward.

David Schach, one of the owners of Dennis Rae Fine Art gallery at 781 Beach St., said one of his employees was watching the news Wednesday morning and recognized a print worth about $3,000 that had been stolen about six years ago.

That burglary was caught on tape by a video surveillance system, Schach said. A man walked into the store and took the print off an easel and walked away while an employee was in the back room.

“The funny thing was, right next to it was an original [Joan] Miró that was worth about $25,000,” Schach said.

Other prints have been stolen from the North Beach gallery and the owners are hoping they are part of this latest find. Police had not gotten back to Schach by Wednesday afternoon to let him know if his other paintings were recovered.


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Brent Begin

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