‘The Well of the Scribes’ Sculpture Resurfaces

An Alta magazine story leads to the discovery of a section of the "The Well of the Scribes" sculpture, which went missing 50 years ago. It was returned to L.A.'s Central Library. The search for the rest of it heats up.


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.

CLICK HERE TO READ THE ORIGINAL STORY

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.

HERE’S HOW WE SOLVED IT

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.

Floyd Lillard, an antiques dealer in Bisbee, Arizona, identified this section of the Well of the Scribes after reading Alta’s article on its disappearance.
Floyd Lillard, an antiques dealer in Bisbee, Arizona, identified this section of the Well of the Scribes after reading Alta’s article on its disappearance.
STEVEN MECKLER

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 tips@altaonline.com.

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.

One portion of the Well of Scribes has been located and will soon be returned to the Los Angeles Central Library.
One portion of the Well of Scribes has been located and will soon be returned to the Los Angeles Central Library.

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 tips@altaonline.com. No questions asked, and you can remain anonymous.

PRESS COVERAGE TO DATE:

Sculpture returns to L.A. Central Library after turning up in Arizona 50 years after mysteriously disappearing — KTLA

Long-lost bronze sculpture was discovered in Bisbee antique shop and returned to LA library — AZ Central

Lost for 50 years, a once-missing sculpture has returned to the Los Angeles LibraryWashington Post

3,000 pound missing statue returned to library 50 years laterWTHR

Los Angeles Library statue found in Arizona after 50 Years. See its return.NBC4

Panel from missing L.A. Public Library sculpture found after 50 yearsFOX News

City Librarian John Szabo unveils the Well of the Scribes at Central LibraryEsotouric

Watch as the Los Angeles Central Library unveils the found portion of the Well of the ScribesABC7

A long lost sculpture returns to L.A. but the mystery continuesLos Angeles Times

Portion of a missing sculpture returned to Central LibraryLos Angeles Downtown News

Brandon Reynolds explains the mystery of the long-lost Well of the ScribesKCRW

Hear Brandon Reynolds discuss the discovery on SoCal Public Radio 89.3 KPCC

A piece of a missing L.A. Library sculpture was found in Arizona. Where are the other two?Los Angeles Times

Lost for decades, bronze library sculpture turns up in ArizonaCurbed Los Angeles

Mystery Solved: Sculpture missing for 50 years found in BisbeeHerald/Review

A piece of a sculpture missing for 50 years was found in a Bisbee antique storeKOLD News 13 (video)

Piece of missing sculpture resurfaces in antiques store 50 years laterUPI (video)

Arizona antique dealer helps Los Angeles Library reunite with lost artArizona 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.

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