"Picasso Man" Nickname Passes from Terry Helbling to Mark Lugo

Categories: Crime
Mark Lugo.jpg
Mark Lugo has lost a lot -- but gains a nickname
Those wondering what alleged Union Square Picasso thief Mark Lugo was thinking when he walked out of the Weinstein Gallery with a $200,000 sketch now have an inkling: It went with his other filched Picasso.

A raid on the Hoboken, N.J., wine steward's apartment turned up half a million dollars' worth of stolen art. The combination of the terms "half a million dollars' worth of art" and "apartment" is rare. Add "Hoboken" to the mix, and it's unheard of.

This revelation cinches it: Lugo is now San Francisco's most famous (alleged) art thief. Terry Helbling will have to hand over his crown -- if we can find it, or him. Helbling, you may remember, is the mentally retarded man who was caught with $200,000 worth of art in his residential hotel room in the Tenderloin. Helbling even picked up the derisive nickname "Picasso Man" from his jailers at in San Francisco -- a moniker Lugo is far more deserving of. Because, unlike Lugo, art thief Helbling had no idea who Picasso was.

Helbling stash.jpg
The treasures of Terry Helbling's hotel room
Of course there are similarities between Lugo and Helbling -- most notably, both seem to have nicked large quantities of art and exhibited it in their apartments without the apparent intent of reselling it. Also, both had the same M.O.: Walk into the gallery, take the painting, and leave. This was not The Thomas Crown Affair here.

Terry Helbling.jpg
Terry Helbling
The Picasso element appears to be where the men's pattern diverges, however. Details on the other 10 or so pieces of stolen art recovered from Lugo's apartment are forthcoming. But between not one but two Picassos and charges of stealing three bottles of wine valued at $6,000, it seems the Jersey man liked abstract art, expensive things, or both.

Helbling did have a taste for gaudy, expensive jewelry and decor. But his taste in art did not seem to be dollar-driven; he favored very traditional paintings such as portraits and still-lifes. "The thing that unites these works in my mind is they are all drawing on various kinds of conservative ideas about art and painting," Gwen Allen, a professor of art history at SF State, told us. "They are reworking tropes or styles of modernism. There's a combination of really weird, eccentric taste, but it's rooted in conservative, traditional ideas about what a work of art should be." This is not a description of Picasso's oeuvre.

Of course, Lugo and Helbling do have one other similarity. In his first court appearance Monday, Lugo pleaded not guilty. Helbling -- who was caught with dozens of stolen works in his room and was additionally nabbed in the act of stealing a painting in 2005 -- still claims complete innocence.

How very surreal.

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