(Adds information on buyer)
By Mike Collett-White
LONDON, April 18 The silver cup given to the marathon winner at the first modern Olympic Games staged in Athens in 1896 sold for 541,250 pounds ($860,000) in London on Wednesday, breaking the auction record for Olympic memorabilia.
Breal's Silver Cup stands just six inches tall and was offered for sale at Christie's by the grandson of the victor, Greek athlete Spyros Louis.
Bearing the same name as his grandfather, Louis said the final price was beyond what he could have imagined.
"Deep down I hope that the cup remains in Greece, but no matter where it ends up, it will forever represent the glory of my country, and I have no doubt that the new owner will treasure it as we have done," he said after the sale.
He got his wish following what Christie's called a "heated" auction that involved six bidders.
The auctioneer later confirmed the buyer as the Stavros Niarchos Foundation, a grantmaking organisation set up in 1996 that plans to build a major cultural centre in Athens where the Olympic cup will go on display from 2015.
In the interim a temporary home will be sought.
"Breal's Silver Cup will be shared with the public and serve as a reminder of our history, heritage and resilient spirit," said Andreas C. Dracopoulos, co-president of the foundation.
"Our hope is that the cup inspires and rekindles Greek pride, just as Louis' victory did on the last day of what would become the Modern Olympic Games."
The cup, which Olympic historian Alexander Kitroeff described as one of the most important pieces of memorabilia associated with the games, smashed the previous auction record for an Olympic artefact.
That was set in April 2011, when an Olympic torch from the 1952 games held in Helsinki was sold at auction in Paris for the equivalent of $400,000.
"The fact that the family managed to preserve the cup through more than a century of tumultuous events including several wars and foreign occupation of Greece symbolizes the importance that Greeks attach to their ancient heritage and the Olympic Games," Kitroeff said in a statement.
The item was sold on the day Britain marked the 100 days' countdown to the 2012 London Olympics.
The cup was named after Michel Breal, the French philologist who invented the men's marathon race as part of the 1896 games.
Inspired by the legend of the messenger Pheidippides, he had the idea to stage a race from the city of Marathon to Athens -- a distance of 25 miles (40 km), and promised a silver cup to the winner.
According to the auctioneer, of the 17 athletes who began the race, only 10 finished, one of whom was later disqualified for travelling by carriage for part of the race.
Louis, a previously unrecognised water carrier who allegedly sipped cognac on his way around the track and became a national hero for his victory, finished in just under three hours -- eight minutes ahead of second place. (Reporting by Mike Collett-White, editing by Paul Casciato)