Suspect in Botanical Garden burglary has ‘passion for art’ 

A man was arrested Tuesday night after staff at the San Francisco Botanical Garden recognized him as a suspect in the theft of 40 pieces of art from the garden’s horticulture library in late April.

Terry Helbing, 53, who has been known to frequent the Botanical Garden as well as attend art openings and horticulture meetings in the main building, was taken into custody at about 7 p.m.

San Francisco Botanical Garden Society executive director Michael McKechnie said Helbing is believed to have stolen five paintings by local artists and two 100-year-old paintings, as well as 33 prints that had been for sale.

“He seemed to have a passion for art,” McKechnie said. “He apparently collected it any way he could.”

Botanical Garden staff began to suspect Helbing in the burglary after he made statements about his art collection.

“We’d been suspicious of him for some time,” McKechnie said. “It turns out we were right.”

Botanical Garden staff were told to alert police the next time Helbing stopped by, which turned out to be Tuesday night.

“He was in the county fair building in the Botanical Garden, attending a meeting of the orchid society,” McKechnie said. “A couple of staff recognized him and called police.”

After Helbing’s arrest, police served a search warrant in the 400 block of Ellis Street this morning and recovered numerous pieces of art, including paintings, rugs and vases that belong to multiple victims.

McKechnie said he expects to have all of the Botanical Garden’s artwork returned, and estimated its value at $15,000.

“We’re very grateful the paintings are going to be returned,” he said.

Police have not disclosed who the other victims are but said they expect to serve additional search warrants related to this case.


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