gavel.jpgA San Francisco man suspected of stealing thousands of dollars worth of art from the San Francisco Botanical Garden’s horticulture library pleaded not guilty today to charges of burglary, possessing stolen property and grand theft.

Terry Helbing, 53, was arraigned on the charges this morning in San Francisco Superior Court. He was arrested Tuesday after staff at the Botanical Garden, where Helbing was a frequent visitor, called police.

Helbing is believed to have taken two 100-year-old paintings, five paintings by local artists and 33 prints, worth $15,000 total, in late April, according to the Botanical Garden’s Executive Director Michael McKechnie.

McKechnie said staff had been suspicious of Helbing “for some time” and that Helbing had spoken to employees there about his art collection, and “seemed to have a passion for art.”

Helbing was known to frequent the garden and attend art openings and horticulture meetings there.

Police recovered about 100 artworks–oil paintings, prints, sculptures, rugs and vases, including the Botanical Garden items–from Helbing’s tiny residential hotel room in the 400 block of Ellis Street. The total value of the stolen items may exceed $100,000, police say, and there may be at least six victims. They are still trying to identify to whom the other artworks belong.

Helbing, a gray-haired, balding man, wore large, horn-rimmed glasses and an orange jail uniform in court. He greeted Judge Samuel Feng nervously with, “Good morning, your honor. Good morning.”

Asked by Feng if he could afford his own lawyer, Helbing answered, “Afford to? No.”

An attorney from the public defender’s office was appointed to represent him. Her request for Helbing to be freed from custody for his next court date was denied and bail was set at $95,000.

According to the district attorney’s office, Helbing has a prior conviction in New York in 1998 for disorderly conduct, and an arrest record in Texas.

He also successfully completed a court diversion program after being charged with sexual battery in 2001, and served 82 days in county jail for a 2005 misdemeanor conviction for attempted grand theft, prosecutors said.

Helbing is now charged with one count of burglary, two counts of possessing stolen property and one count of grand theft in connection with the Botanical Garden theft.

He faces a maximum six-year prison sentence under the current charges, prosecutors said.

Helbing is scheduled to return to court Monday to set a date for a preliminary hearing.

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