Long-lost library sculpture returns to L.A. But the mystery continues

Well of the Scribes
A section of the Well of the Scribes sculpture, missing since 1969, returned the the Los Angeles Central Library on Friday. But where are the other pieces?
(Dania Maxwell/Los Angeles Times)

City Librarian John Szabo stood tall behind a table, smiling from ear to ear. In front of him, cloaked in a black cloth, sat a missing piece of a long-lost sculpture that once welcomed patrons to the Los Angeles Central Library. With a flick of his hands, the fabric flew off and a section of the Well of Scribes appeared.

The sculpture vanished mysteriously in 1969. Recently, an antiques dealer discovered it in the heat of Arizona. The bronze sculpture returned to L.A. on Friday. Part of it, at least.

“The Los Angeles Public Library is about stories,” Szabo told a group of 30 people gathered inside the library’s Rare Books Room. “It is about telling stories. It is about preserving stories and it is about gathering stories. And today ... we have a new story to tell.”


The discovery has brought Szabo and others hope in finding two still-missing pieces of the Well of the Scribes. “Up until now, we thought [the sculpture] might have been destroyed or was in someone’s backyard,” he said. “We just didn’t know if it would ever be found.”

Though the piece was discovered “in excellent condition,” it will likely undergo conservation work before it’s publicly displayed, Szabo said.

Alta magazine managing editor Blaise Zerega said he is determined to find the entire sculpture. He’s hiring investigators to help track down the missing sections.

When he read Susan Orlean‘s 2018 “The Library Book,” Zerega decided the missing Well of the Scribes would make a good story. “I thought there was a good chance that someone has it,” Zerega said at Friday’s unveiling.

So he asked reporter Brandon R. Reynolds to dig for answers. The result was the July article, “Whatever Happened to the Well of the Scribes?”

The article reached Floyd Lillard, an antiques dealer in Bisbee, Ariz., who immediately recognized the sculpture. It turns out the bronze panel he’d bought for $500 from a woman years earlier was a piece of it, and it was standing in his apartment above his antique store.


Lillard reached out to the Los Angeles Public Library, and Szabo traveled to Arizona to examine the sculpture.

The director of the Los Angeles Central Library, Kren Malone, left, watches as City Librarian John F. Szabo unveils the recovered piece of the long-lost Well of the Scribes sculpture.
(Dania Maxwell/Los Angeles Times)

The Well of the Scribes disappeared in 1969 when the downtown library underwent a makeover. Its garden and west lawn were paved to make way for a staff parking lot. After an unsuccessful protest by architect Robert Alexander, who chained himself to a rock near the sculpture, the plan was carried out.

The fountains, plantings and sculptures in the library’s west lawn and garden were removed. In the process, the Well of the Scribes — an homage to history’s great writers — vanished.

Now that part of the sculpture has been found, there is hope. And a few leads.

The theory: Zerega speculated that the woman who sold Lillard the section has siblings, each one of whom has a piece of the sculpture. “We know she’s from the greater L.A. area,” he said.

Lillard thinks he still has the receipt, Zerega said; he just has to find it among hundreds of others.