With a matador’s flourish, Los Angeles city librarian John Szabo whipped the drape off, revealing the entirety of Western learning beneath it. On a long, curving piece of bronze, six scribes—Native American, Aztec, monastic, Hebrew, Roman, and Greek—marched leftward. No one had seen this slice of the library’s history in half a century. The press was on hand to conduct interviews, snap pictures, and tape footage for the evening news. And there I was, holding mics from both ABC and NBC as if they were turkey legs at a state fair, explaining the significance of the repatriation that had just occurred.
The bronze in question was a segment of the Well of the Scribes, a fountain that had welcomed visitors to the L.A. Central Library from 1926 to late 1969 or early 1970, when it was yanked out to make space for a parking lot. After that, it vanished from the public eye.
Anyone with an opinion on the matter assumed the Well had been melted for scrap, or lost in a city storage yard, or installed as an accent piece in someone’s backyard. It became a passing mention in Susan Orlean’s The Library Book, which inspired the managing editor of this magazine to ask me if I could uncover what had happened to it.
My efforts were in vain. I wrote a Cold Case story about the Well and its unsolved disappearance for Alta’s Summer 2019 issue, which came out in July. However, a few weeks later, Alta received an email from a man named Floyd Lillard, an antiques dealer living in Bisbee, Arizona. He supposedly had an answer to the mystery.
Lillard had also contacted Szabo. “My jaw dropped when I saw the email. I couldn’t believe it. I was stunned, thrilled, elated,” the city librarian told me before going to Bisbee to confirm the piece’s authenticity. “I look forward to, as [Lillard] opens the door, rushing by him, throwing myself on the Well of the Scribes, and saying, ‘You’re coming home!’ ”
If you think his enthusiasm was performative, let me assure you it was not. There is a photo of Szabo standing before the bronze in Lillard’s apartment, his hand placed over his heart. It is as if he has been reunited with a lost puppy. But this puppy is culturally relevant.
The Well was designed by Lee Lawrie, a sculptor, and Hartley Burr Alexander, an iconographer. Lawrie’s works include other interior and exterior sculptures at the Central Library as well as the Atlas in New York’s Rockefeller Center. This history, plus the fact that Szabo dubbed the Bisbee piece the real McCoy, made the bronze an officially Important Relic. I wanted to see it, had to see it. So about a week before it began its trip home to L.A., I went to visit Lillard in Bisbee.
The bronze was in the last place you’d think to look. Out of state, not far from the Mexican border, sure. But to reach it, I also had to navigate a shop of knickknacks called Merchants & Miners that’s located inside a former bank in a building that Lillard owns. People rent space from him to peddle their wares. The Important Relic, at first glance, belonged with this gentle Americana, the kind that washes up on shelves and in cabinets anywhere there’s a grandparent or an obsessive collector. Yet Lillard had sensed its significance and, through tough financial times, cancer, and a divorce, he’d held on to it, hoping that, someday, its meaning would be revealed.
Help Alta find the rest of the Well of the Scribes! Send information and clues to firstname.lastname@example.org.
The antiques dealer had bought his piece of the Well from a woman in nearby Sierra Vista about a decade earlier. (Exactly when was fuzzy.) She had kept it outside, in her garden. He couldn’t remember her name. (Cynthia? Christy?) Her father had worked for the city of L.A. (Maybe the county.) “I’ve never been good at remembering names, and, boy, since the chemo I’ve been really bad,” he told me. “But I rarely forget antiques,” he added.
What Lillard had had, what Szabo proudly unveiled, is the right side of the Well, showing Western scribes. Still missing are the left side, depicting Eastern scribes, and a central Pegasus toward which all the scribes march. Also, a seashell motif out of which water poured. These pieces are out there. And we at Alta are on the case: we’ve hired a private investigator, have our own search underway, and have created a hotline of sorts—send info to email@example.com. No questions asked, and you can remain anonymous.
PRESS COVERAGE TO DATE:
A long lost sculpture returns to L.A. but the mystery continues — Los Angeles Times
Portion of a missing sculpture returned to Central Library — Los Angeles Downtown News
Lost for decades, bronze library sculpture turns up in Arizona — Curbed Los Angeles
Mystery Solved: Sculpture missing for 50 years found in Bisbee — Herald/Review
A piece of a sculpture missing for 50 years was found in a Bisbee antique store — KOLD News 13 (video)
Arizona antique dealer helps Los Angeles Library reunite with lost art — Arizona Daily Star
Editor’s note: As Alta went to press, we identified the person who sold Lillard her piece of the Well and we were chasing several leads.