BISBEE — A curious Bisbee antique dealer recently came across a magazine story which piqued his interest, and eventually solved a 50-year-old mystery.
For years, Floyd Lillard, owner of Miner’s and Merchant’s Antiques, searched the internet for information on an unusual bronze casting he purchased a decade ago from a woman in California. She told him at the time that “it was a piece off of an old building,” he recalled recently.
In July, the Journal of Alta, California, published a story by Brandon Reynolds on a missing sculpture as one of his “cold case” features, and included an old photograph of the “Well of Scribes.” It looked just like Lillard’s piece.
“I could never get a photo of it,” he said. “Once a year, I’d go on the internet and search some more. I just happened upon Brandon’s article. He actually had a photo of it.”
His piece fit the description of a portion of the bronze well in the photo, and the photo of the right portion of it matched his work. But was it a match?
Back in 1929, the Los Angeles Library held the notable distinction of being the largest in the West, with incredible sculptures inside and out crafted by artist Lee Lawrie, maybe best known for the Atlas in front of the Rockefeller Center in New York City.
One of Lawrie’s exceptional sculptures was called the “Well of Scribes,” an intricate, detailed bronze casting of the passing of information down through the ages from our earliest ancestors, who drew on cave walls to the Aztec and Native American script adding the history of the Americas.
The Well of Scribes was devised by Lawrie and Hartley Burr Alexander for the building designed by Bertram Goodhue. It was part of the outdoor architecture of the library and included a series of ponds which ended in a low water basin where water surged from the spout of a setting sun, also cast in bronze. Lawrie’s design “centered on a winged horse symbolizing inspiration and on each side a procession of elegantly detailed single figures in profile represented scribes from various early cultures,” according to records.
When the West Garden of the library was removed to expand parking, the Well of Scribes was lost, even presumed to have been sold for scrap and melted down, library documents reveal.
Lillard looked at the old photo and thought of his bronze, wondering if it was possible this was a portion of the Well of Scribes.
Break in the case
Reynolds said his editor, Blaise Zerega, suggested he do a story on it as part of the cold case features on “unsolved California mysteries.” Zerega found a mention of the well in a “single reference to the Well and its disappearance” in Susan Orlean’s “The Library Book,” which he found intriguing enough to explore further and passed it to Reynolds.
“Most of the ‘Cold Case’ stories are essentially unsolvable and closer to lore or anecdotes, but when he assigned it, I proceeded with a hugely inflated sense of overconfidence about getting answers,” Reynolds said. “I really wanted to find the Well.”
When Lillard saw Reynolds’ article, he felt sure enough that it could be a match to call John Szabo, the city librarian at the Los Angeles Library. He also sent Szabo a photo of the piece he had and suggested he come take a look.
A very interested Szabo came to Bisbee on Sept. 7. He enjoyed returning to town.
“I adore Bisbee. I’ve been here many times,” he said.
He was not disappointed when he finally saw the what Lillard had. It was a perfect match.
“I was excited,” Szabo said. “It was an absolute thrill to see Lawrie’s work in person. We only had an old photo of it. For decades, it was part of our library and, somehow, we lost it. To be reunited with it still seems a bit surreal. And to see the detail of it was remarkable.
“Our docents know the building so well and the ‘Well of Scribes’ story. They will be quite surprised to find out a part of it has been found.”
Previously, no one knew if the Well of Scribes had been cast as one solid piece or in sections. After examining Lillard’s section, he surmised it was done in three sections – the right, center and left – due to the positioning of what appeared to be bolt holes.
Lillard is donating the piece back to the library.
“I had to do it,” Lillard said. “It needs to go back.”
What will happen after that remains to be seen.
“I’m not sure just where we’ll put it,” Szabo said. “Maybe we’ll put it back outside, or maybe inside.”
The section Lillard has weighs 300 to 400 pounds and how to transport it is another decision Szabo will have to make.
“I’m not sure how we’ll bring it back to Los Angeles,” he said. “We may have it shipped or we may send someone to bring it back.”
One thing is assured, though: there will be “a big celebration” after it is returned home, Szabo said. They will also celebrate the generosity of Lillard’s donation of the work to the library.
Szabo presented a copy of Orleans’ book as a token of appreciation to Lillard, who happened to have it on his wish list.
Reynolds is also very pleased a portion of the bronze by Lawrie is coming back home. It is the first of his cold case stories to pay off.
“I really wanted there to be some sort of progress to the case after all these years, which was pretty unrealistic,” he said. “So many folks I talked to were sure the Well had been destroyed, so it was nice to see that, when it comes to what happened in 1969, greed won out over neglect.”
For Szabo, the discovery brings renewed hope that the center piece, depicting the majestic Pegasus, and the left portion, showing the scribes of ancient times, will be found, as well as the bronze setting-sun water spout to complete the entire work of art.
“Maybe the people who have the other parts will see this and come forward,” Lillard said. “I’m pleased it has been identified and will be going home.”