For more than 40 years, a bronze sculpture called the Well of the Scribes graced the west lawn of the Los Angeles Central Library, sitting among the reflecting pools, gardens and Italian cypress trees.
Then, in 1969, the Well of the Scribes disappeared. The library had undergone a renovation that removed the west lawn, and the fate of the sculpture remained a mystery — until now.
Part of the sculpture has been discovered in the Arizona town of Bisbee, due to a bestselling author, a pair of California journalists and an eagle-eyed antiques dealer.
Los Angeles City Librarian John Szabo traveled to Arizona on Sept. 7 to examine the sculpture. “My heart was up in my throat,” he said. “I was absolutely breathless to be able to see it,” Szabo said.
The library staff is working with an art transportation firm to return the sculpture to L.A., said library spokesman Peter Persic.
The mystery unraveled after Susan Orlean wrote about the Well of the Scribes in “The Library Book,” her 2018 bestseller about the 1986 fire that closed the downtown Central Library for seven years. (It was the first book selected by the Los Angeles Times Book Club.)
The origin of the library fire remains a mystery. But a passage in Orlean’s book about the Well of the Scribes — “the most significant” of the garden sculptures that disappeared during the west lawn renovation — intrigued Alta magazine managing editor Blaise Zerega. He asked reporter Brandon R. Reynolds to investigate the bronze basin’s fate; the result was a July article headlined “Whatever Happened to the Well of the Scribes?”
Floyd Lillard, an antiques dealer in Arizona, happened upon the article while researching a mysterious piece he had bought years ago. He felt a shock of recognition.
The bronze panel sitting in his antique store, he realized, was part of the Well of the Scribes. Lillard told Curbed Los Angeles that he had purchased it about a decade earlier for $500 from a woman whose name he doesn’t remember. “I just had a good feeling about it,” Lillard said. “It wasn’t signed or anything, but it just looked like a fantastic piece to me.”
After discovering the sculpture’s origins, Lillard contacted the Los Angeles Public Library about the piece.
Conceived by Bertram Goodhue and Hartley Burr Alexander and sculpted by Lee Lawrie, the Well of the Scribes is a large bronze basin constructed around 1926. It has three panels depicting Pegasus bearing a torch and surrounded by writers from different cultures. The sculpture likely weighed more than 3,000 pounds.
The section of the sculpture that Lillard bought is the eastern panel of the basin; the central and western panels are still missing.
The circumstances surrounding its disappearance are unknown. Szabo said the discovery has given him hope that the other two pieces might one day be found.
“This gives us some degree of confidence that the whole thing wasn’t melted down or thrown away,” Szabo said. “Those other two pieces are out there somewhere, perhaps they’re in Southern Arizona, perhaps they’re in L.A. Hopefully this publicity will yield the rest of it.”
Lillard said he doesn’t want monetary compensation for the sculpture. “The piece needs to be in L.A., for the people of L.A. to enjoy,” he said. “Because that’s who it truly belongs to.”
The sculpture may be returned to Los Angeles as soon as this week. “Once it’s back at Central Library, we’ll evaluate its condition and the options for displaying it,” Persic said.
Szabo said he’s excited to bring back a piece of library history.
“Libraries are about stories, preserving stories and telling stories,” he said. “This is a great example of yet another story that can be told here at the Central Library.”