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LONDON (Reuters) - A silver cup awarded to Spyros Louis, the humble Greek runner who won the first Olympic marathon in Athens in 1896, is to be sold by his grandson at an auction in London ahead of this year's Games.
Auctioneers Christie's said on Thursday that the delicate 15cm cup had been treasured by the family for 116 years, surviving World War Two hidden among the family tomato plants for fear of looting.
They put an estimate of between 120,000 and 160,000 pounds ($188,500 to $251,300) on the cup created by French philologist Michel Breal, a friend of the founder of the modern Olympics Pierre de Coubertin.
It will be the highlight of an auction, to be held on April 18 just over three months before the start of the London Olympics, that also includes original posters and torches from past Games.
"This is probably one of the most exciting pieces of Olympic memorabilia we have ever seen," Christie's poster specialist Nicolette Tomkinson told Reuters, cradling the cup in white-gloved hands.
"It's been in the family all the way through, passed down generation to generation. We believe it's been on the mantelpiece so it's been something they've been proud to share with all their friends and family.
"This is the iconic piece. If you want to buy some Olympic memorabilia, this is the one thing you would definitely want to have."
The International Olympic Committee museum in Lausanne, Switzerland, has a replica of the cup.
The auctioneers denied the decision to sell had been triggered by the Greek financial crisis, with the country plunged into its deepest and longest post-war recession and fighting to avoid a debt default.
They said the first contact with the family had been made "many years ago" but the timing was right with the Games again in the spotlight.
Christie's quoted the grandson, also called Spyros, as saying the decision had been taken for the benefit of his two children.
"It is going to be impossible to split a cup so I have decided the most sensible thing to do is to offer it at auction and use the proceeds to secure the future of my family," he explained.
Louis, whose first name is sometimes given as Spiridon, was the only Greek winner of an athletics event in 1896 and became a national hero, showered with gifts. He died in 1940.
The modern Olympic stadium in Athens, which hosted the 2004 Games, is named after him.
The race, with 18 runners, was held over 40km of rough and dusty roads from Marathon in Attica to Athens as the brainchild of Breal.
The Frenchman had been inspired by the tale of Phidippides who was said to have run from the plain of Marathon to Athens in 490 BC to convey the news the Athenians had defeated the Persians.
Louis's origins have been shrouded in mystery and he has been variously reported to have earned his livelihood as a shepherd, a professional water carrier or a postman in his Attica village of Maroussi. ($1 = 0.6367 British pounds)
Editing by Tony Jimenez