Terry Helbling's Victims to Get Art Back Today

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No one would confuse the glum, imposing hunk of concrete that is the Hall of Justice with an art gallery. But today it is. And if more galleries had sheriff's deputies and metal detectors at their doors -- well, then the Hall of Justice wouldn't be so well-stocked with purloined paintings.

Today's the day that gallery owners victimized by art thief Terry Helbling -- the subject of SF Weekly's current cover story -- are recovering their pilfered objects d'art. The $200,000 worth of art and artifacts had previously been stored in what looks to be a warehouse of crimes gone wrong (you can see glimpses of what appear to be a Tour de France's worth of bicycles behind pictures of the stolen artwork here and here). Gallery owners are, as we speak, wandering into the Hall of Justice to collect their paintings -- or three, or six -- unearthed from Helbling's Tenderloin apartment.

Gallery 444 co-owner Desiree Mitchell isn't going to recreate Fort Knox to protect the $36,000 Rafal Olbinski painting that was stolen from her in 2006.

"I'm going to put it back on the easel it got stolen from in our window," she says with a laugh. "But I'm going to lock it to the easel so if you take the painting, you'll have to take the easel with it. And the window alarm should be on this time." See that it is.

Mitchell hasn't suffered a theft since Tulips was nicked five years ago and subsequently recovered from Helbling's art-saturated room in the Cambridge Hotel. Commercial art theft is "an unusual thing. Art is hard to sell -- we can't hardly sell it these days."

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Rafal Olbinski
Tulips, back from its sojourn in Terry Helbling's apartment
In fact, Mitchell will be using the painting's elaborate backstory as a sales device. She's sent today's SF Weekly story to a number of potential buyers in hopes that the chance to point to Tulips and tell onlookers "You won't believe this..." is enticement enough to plunk down $36,000. She notes that anyone who buys the painting will get to take home one of the copies of SF Weekly that is now sitting in her gallery -- an excellent deal. Buy the painting and take home a free copy of a free paper!

Technically, Tulips belongs to Mitchell's insurance company. But the company has consigned it to her in hopes of selling it. The painting "has a fascinating story and people like stuff like that," Mitchell says. "They like to have history on their artwork. Now I can say this painting came from the artist to this guy, to me, to the other guy who stole it, and here it is back again from our insurance company."

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