The phone call took John Szabo’s breath away.
An antique store owner in Arizona called the city librarian earlier this month to say he had in his possession a panel from the “Well of the Scribes,” a sculpture that had disappeared 50 years ago from the Central Library in Downtown LA.
As soon as Floyd Lillard sent photos, Szabo was convinced it was one of the missing pieces. But he had to see it for himself.
A few days later, he boarded a plane to Tucson, then drove two hours south to Bisbee, where Lillard was storing the hefty bronze sculpture, in an apartment above his antique store.
“I literally fell to the ground and threw my hands upon the bronze and was absolutely speechless,” Szabo says.
The Well of the Scribes, crafted by architectural sculptor Lee Lawrie, was originally installed as the base of a water feature near the library’s West Garden. The “subtly detailed” relief is made of three large pieces: the eastern scribe (which Lillard found), the western scribe, and a center piece depicting a pegasus, a symbol of inspiration. The sculpture represents the history of writing, and, according to Alta Journal, weighed more than 3,000 pounds.
In 1969, the entire West Garden was paved over, and the sculpture disappeared.
For years, Szabo says he had wondered whether the scribes were lingering in someone’s backyard, in a scrap yard covered in brush, or had melted down. He often talked about the sculpture with the library docents, who can now include the story in their daily tours.
“It is a reunification of sorts,” Szabo says.
Lillard bought the sculpture 10 years ago for $500 from a woman who had kept it in her garden.
“I just had a good feeling about it,” Lillard says. “It wasn’t signed or anything, but it just looked like a fantastic piece to me.”
He said received tempting offers from customers, but declined all of them because he felt the piece was too special. Determined to research the sculpture’s history, Lillard found an article online that described the piece. But he didn’t have any photos to confirm whether his was the missing portion.
Then, he came across an article by The Journal of Alta California published in July about the lost artwork’s history, complete with photos, and contacted the library.
Lillard offered to donate the piece to the library, but Szabo says the library wants to compensate him for it. Library staffers are making arrangements to crate the sculpture back to Los Angeles.
“The piece needs to be in LA for the people of LA to enjoy,” says Lillard. “Because that’s who it truly belongs to.”
In the ’90s, a new garden based on the original West Garden design—including terraced reflecting pools, fountains, and public art—was installed on the site, facing Hope Street. Because a different well was installed where the original scribes were placed, Szabo says the plan is to incorporate the “long lost treasure” somewhere else in the building.
Now he’s hoping the two remaining missing parts will turn up too.