ST. LOUIS — For decades, a bizarre linoleum mosaic embedded in the asphalt at Sixth and Olive streets in downtown St. Louis had people wondering: "What is it?"
The question now: Where is it?
This summer, someone pried up and make off with one of the city's two remaining "Toynbee Tiles."
The tiles, with their cryptic message "Toynbee Idea In Kubrick's 2001 Resurrect Dead On Planet Jupiter," were placed here about 25 years ago.
They first appeared in Philadelphia in the early 1980s. They became an international phenomenon and are now found on the streets of more than two dozen cities in North and South America.
The tiles, about the size of a license plate, have proven to have a powerful allure, generating websites devoted to theories about their origin and meaning.
Last year, the documentary Resurrect Dead: The Mystery of the Toynbee Tiles won the directing award at the Sundance Film Festival. It helped popularize the artwork but also may have made them the target of thieves, as Kelley Huonker, of south St. Louis, learned this summer.
Huonker, 30, became fascinated with the tiles after seeing the film. In August, Huonker and a couple of friends came downtown to see the tile at Sixth and Olive. But where the artwork had been, they found only a blank, black square.
A security guard working nearby broke the news: A man had taken the tile a few days earlier.
"(The guard) said he asked the guy what he was doing, and the guy said that a documentary had been made about these things and they're going to be worth a lot of money someday," Huonker said.
"I almost cried. It's terrible that someone would take it away for monetary value and rob the city of something so unique and intriguing."
The creations also were placed in New York, Boston, Washington, Baltimore, Cleveland, Indianapolis and Kansas City. And in Brazil, Argentina and Chile.
They appear to be made of asphalt crack filler, glue and linoleum and covered with tar paper. Heat and pressure from vehicle tires melds the tiles into the asphalt. The message appears as the paper cover disintegrates.
Most of them include references to English historian Arnold J. Toynbee, whose theory on regenerating dead molecules surfaced in Kubrick's film 2001: A Space Odyssey. Some of them contain political rants and demands that others "must make and glue tiles!!"
In recent years, copycats have heeded the call to make more tiles. Several examples placed in St. Louis and other cities bear the ominous message: "House of Hades Tiles Made From the Ground Bones of Dead Journalists."
The largest stock of original Toynbee Tiles, about 100, is in Philadelphia, according to Steve Weinik, one of the researchers and subjects of the Resurrect Dead.
The film details the sleuthing that led to the identity of the recluse, Sevy Verna, who created the tiles and how he managed to safely place them in such dangerous locations as freeways and the entrance to the Holland Tunnel in New York City.