“I felt it had more historical significance than scrap bronze,” said Traylor, 43.
He has learned that the patina-covered sculpture depicts vaudeville comic Ralph Bingham and was made in 1929 by Chicago artist Lorado Taft.
Taft, according to Melissa Wolfe of the Columbus Museum of Art, was “a pre-eminent American sculptor” known for large civic pieces.
He was born in 1860, studied at the Ecole des Beaux Arts in Paris and at the University of Illinois, and rose to prominence during the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago.
That city’s Washington Park is home to his Fountain of Time, a 110-foot-long grouping of statues. Taft died in 1936.
“He was central to the Chicago art world,” said Wolfe, museum curator of American art. “He was really well-thought-of as a teacher. He still has a national reputation, but he is thought of as conservative.”
Anyone who has walked through a big memorial park, she said, has probably seen a Taft work — perhaps without knowing who made it.
Indeed, Traylor has photos of himself outside the Art Institute of Chicago, in front of Fountain of the Great Lakes. Only recently did he discover that Taft designed the fountain.
Robert La France, curator of pre-modern art at the Krannert Art Museum at the University of Illinois, knew of the Bingham bust but thought it was lost. He was heartened when Traylor called about it.“We were about to lose this piece of art,” he said. “I’m glad he saved it.”
La France, who inspected the 27-inch-tall sculpture during a recent visit to Columbus, was pleasantly surprised.
“It looks 100 percent right; it’s in very good condition.”
A friend of Traylor’s, Ryan Williams, found the sculpture at the scrap yard as he dropped off building materials.
“It was curious,” Williams said, “just the juxtaposition of it.”
He took photos and showed them to Traylor, who bought the sculpture from the person who had taken it to Sims Brothers Recycling and Processing. The scrap-yard manager declined to comment about the sculpture.
Traylor said the previous owner told him that the bust had been found in a crawlspace of an old house in Westerville.
“(He said) it was his drinking buddy — he put a cowboy hat on it,” Traylor recalled with a laugh. “He had it for years. His wife just got tired of looking at it.”
A plaque on the front of the sculpture reads: “Ralph Bingham, 1870-1925, Founder of the International Lyceum and Chautauqua Association.”
During the early 1900s, the association sponsored lectures, theater shows and other educational programs at which Bingham performed.
According to the Krannert Museum, the last known whereabouts of the bust was the International Platform Association in Westerville, a descendant of the Lyceum and Chautauqua Association.
Although she doesn’t recall the piece, Emily Warner — who now lives in Colorado Springs, Colo. — said it could have been in her father’s office at the Platform Association when he was the group’s executive secretary in the 1950s. The Westerville association disbanded about 1960. Traylor said he doesn’t know the value of the bust because Taft’s pieces are usually in public places and don’t often come up for auction.
La France said the Krannert Musuem has several Taft busts but that other museums might be interested in acquiring it.
If not, Traylor said, he’ll keep it on a pedestal in a corner of his living room.
“I just love it,” he said. “It makes me feel good I saved it.”