We highly recommend reading the cover story on the latest issue of the SF Weekly by Joe Askenazi. It profiles Terry Helbing, a peculiar Tenderloin resident who amassed around $200,000 worth of art in his tiny 10 by 10 foot room in the Cambridge Hotel on Ellis and Leavenworth. Dubbed by the media as ‘the Tenderloin art thief’, Terry Helbing spent years stealing from more than a dozen galleries, museums, and libraries and ended up spending 8 months in a county jail until recently. His room, crammed with art from floor to ceiling, was famous amongst the other SRO residents. This is how Askenazi describes Helbing’s ecclectic collection:
There were still lifes, landscapes, and, jarringly, a painting of an anthropomorphic kitty with pert, human breasts and a pickle on its head dangled alongside gaily decorated Italian vases expertly fastened to the walls. Stuffed fish and delicate decanters shared space with Russian dolls and a breathtaking, gargantuan photo of a Chinese mountain vista. The room’s microscopic closet was occupied by a pair of grandfather clocks, one of which had a small skeleton dangling from its pendulum. In fact, several animal skulls dotted the room, including the cranium of a male Northern elephant seal — which had been swiped from the aforementioned California Academy of Sciences in 2007.
You can see a slideshow of some of the pieces found in Helbing’s room and judge for yourself, but our favorite is the topless cat (pictured below) because who doesn’t love a topless cat? Askenazi, who calls Helbing a Tenderloin pasha, also comments on the interesting sleeping arrangement in Helbing’s room:
The first thing to hit your eye if you walked in might be that his mattress was atop the most gorgeous Oriental rug you’ve ever seen. And that rug was on top of another rug. And so on, and so on — Helbling slept on a pile of lush rugs as if he were re-enacting a scene from The Princess and the Pea.
There are many elements that make the story of this unusual art thief interesting, but the main one obviously is that he lived in a Tenderloin SRO. His personality also adds a great surreal dimension to the story, like how he always chose artwork that was displayed by the door of the galleries, taken in a matter of seconds without being seen. He also loved attending members-only botanical garden society soirees (which is what eventually led to his arrest). There are also sad elements, such as his childhood in foster care and how 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 after being released from jail.
In my opinion the article puts too much emphasis on Hebling’s low IQ and literacy (“mentally retarded” in the words of the author) which is only part of the reason why we found this man’s obsession with art so fascinating. Well worth a read, though or wait until it comes out as a film starring oh… hell, Paul Giammati, why not.