Iconic Olympic cup returns home to Greece for record price at auction

Story highlights

  • A silver cup presented at the first modern Olympic Games has sold for £541,000
  • Sale at Christie's in London sets new record price for a piece of Olympic memorabilia
  • Cup was presented to Greek athlete Spyros Louis, who won marathon at 1896 Games
  • A Greek foundation wins the auction and cup will go on show in Athens
A silver cup presented to the Greek winner of the marathon at the first modern Olympics in Athens in 1896 has sold for a record £541,000 ($860,000) at auction in London.
It is the highest price paid for a piece of Olympic memorabilia, with the sale at Christie's over in a matter of minutes with the bids leaping £50,000 ($80,000) at a time.
The previous record was for an Olympic torch from the 1952 Helsinki Games in Finland which fetched $400,000 last year.
Spyros Louis became a national hero when he won the only gold medal for Greece in the track and field events 116 years ago so it became a matter of national pride that the cup should return to the birthplace of the Olympics.
CNN understands that the Mayor of the Marousi District in Athens, where Louis was born, raised 350,000 euros ($458,000 ) to bid.
It wasn't enough. The new owner is the Greek philanthropic organization, the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, named after the late Greek shipping tycoon.
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The cup will go on display in Athens and will eventually be given a permanent home in the Foundation's new cultural center due to open in 2015.
Symbolic value
The cup which fetched such a vast sum is just 15 centimeters high but beautifully decorated in the art nouveau style.
Its intrinsic value -- as silver -- isn't very high. But this cup is all about symbolism, an object from the beginning of the modern Olympics.
The story of the cup involved three men. Spyros Louis, his grandson and a Frenchman, Michel Breal.
Louis had helped salvage Greek pride in the most emblematic of races for the host country.
The odds were certainly stacked in their favor. Of the 17 runners, 13 were Greek. But going into the last few miles of the race, an Australian and a French athlete were leading and an expectant crowd waiting in the stadium were subdued.
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Then suddenly word reached the stadium that the foreigners had both dropped out and a Greek was leading.
Spyros Louis wasn't considered a favorite and had only finished fifth in a special trial race before the Games, but he proved to have stamina.
By trade, he moved water by mule into the center of Athens and it stood him in good stead.
Greek hero
By winning the marathon (then 25 miles) he instantly became a Greek sporting immortal. Even now in Greece, over 70 years after his death, his name remains a synonym for moving at speed. The 2004 Olympic Stadium is named after him.
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The King of Greece presided over the award ceremony on the last day of the Games. Spyros Louis received a silver medal, a crown of olive leaves, a diploma and, of course, the special silver cup.
And this is where Michel Breal enters the story. He was a distinguished linguist (usually credited as the founder of modern semantics) and passionate about all things Greek.
He was crucial in persuading his fellow Frenchman, Baron de Coubertin to include the marathon in the first Games. As an incentive, Breal provided the special cup for the winner, Breal's Silver Cup as it became known.
It is unclear who designed it, but the relief decoration shows bird and plant life from the ancient battleground of Marathon.
So the legend has it, in 490 B.C., the messenger, Phidippides ran from Marathon to Athens to bring news of the Greek victory over the Persians, then collapsed and died.
Until now, the cup has always been in the Louis family. During the Second World War, it was apparently hidden in a tomato patch in a garden, but more recently it has had pride of place on the mantelpiece in the house of the great athlete's grandson, also called Spyros Louis, a retired civil servant in his early 70s.
Reluctant sale
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He agonized for some time, but in these tough economic times in Greece, he reluctantly decided to sell it, to provide for his two children.
Two years ago, he did the rounds of various government ministries, offering to sell the cup for a mere 100,000 euros ($130,000) but without response.
The Greek Culture Ministry didn't seem to have any reservations about granting it an export license and this has ultimately proved to the financial benefit of the Louis family.
Michel Breal's great grand daughter, Katharine Brunt, aged 88, attended the Christie's sale. And just before it started, wearing white gloves, she was able to briefly hold the legendary Silver Cup her great grandfather commissioned. It was a touching moment; she had never even seen the cup before.
Katharine Brunt has a mission; The Silver Cup may be going back to Greece for museum display, but Michel Breal's tombstone in Montparnasse cemetery in Paris badly needs restoration.
Apparently the authorities are threatening to demolish it. On grounds of neglect. There's evidently a big crack down the middle and $6000 is needed. Mrs Brunt is hoping that the newly-enriched Spyros Louis may able to help.