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1971 Greek statue gifted to Spartanburg has disappeared

April 7, 2019

SPARTANBURG, S.C. (AP) — A mystery is brewing at Spartanburg City Hall, and at the center is a decades-old gift from Greece.

City Planner Natalia Rosario has teamed up with Brad Steinecke, the assistant director of local history for Spartanburg County Public Libraries, to find a statuette given to the city of Spartanburg as a gift by the city of Sparta, Greece, in 1971. The statuette was discovered missing when a certificate from the Grecian municipality was uncovered last month.

″(The certificate ) was found by Connie McIntyre, city clerk, when she was cleaning out some old boxes in storage that the (former) city attorney had,” Rosario said. “So we were like, ‘Oh, this is so cool, what is it?’ And we were reading it, and we saw that there was a statuette included and were like, ‘Where’s that?’”

The certificate, which references the missing statuette, was sent on Feb. 4, 1971, by then-Prefect of Laconia Spelios Vanikiotis. It states: “To the city of Spartanburg, whose citizens, by their magnificent bravery at Cowpens have resurrected the magnanimity and the heroism of ancient Sparta, I present this statuette of Leonidas, the universal symbol of voluntary self-sacrifice in defense of the fatherland of virtuous men of Laconia, the mother of which I have the honor to serve.”

“I just really love the language of it,” Rosario said. “It’s just super poetic and probably the nicest compliment that anyone has ever given Spartanburg.”

While there’s no record of what the statuette looks like, Rosario figures it would likely be somewhere between 6 and 18 inches. Leonidas statues — based on the warrior king of ancient Sparta, Leonidas I — are often depicted in full armor, wearing a helmet with a fin-like plume.

Rosario said the box that was in storage included a number of other documents, including the 1950 comprehensive plan for the city and county, along with Spartanburg City Council meeting minutes from 1968-72.

The mayor’s office, trophy cases, and other likely spots in City Hall have been searched, but to no avail — the certificate is intact, but the statuette seems to have walked off.

So Rosario turned to Steinecke and the library’s Kennedy Room for help in finding out more about this mysterious object, though the pair hasn’t had much luck so far.

“There’s absolutely no coverage,” Steinecke said. “We’ve got a full index for the newspaper in 1971, and (the gift’s) not mentioned anywhere. I checked all kinds of subject headings that it might have gotten caught under, and I looked through the microfilm for like several weeks after that date and... just nothing. I don’t know what to make of that.”

While there was no information about Sparta in the newspapers, Rosario was able to find one small mention of the city in a set of meeting minutes that were with the certificate.

“One of the meeting minutes actually references becoming sister cities with Sparta, Greece, and Winterthur, Switzerland. I think we actually were sister cities with (Winterthur),” Rosario said.

Steinecke confirmed there was indeed a sister cities program at the time, though he only found references to the partnership with Winterthur. Spartanburg’s arts partnership had set up an exchange program with the Swiss municipality.

Rosario and Steinecke’s investigation, of course, is based on the assumption that the statuette actually made it to Spartanburg, which they believe it did, given the arrival of the certificate. Steinecke believes that it was possibly on display at some point.

“There’s some light damage to the seal and the ink (on the certificate), which makes me think that it was on display for a while and wasn’t just put away somewhere,” Steinecke said.

While the monthlong search hasn’t brought Rosario and Steinecke any closer to finding the statue, the pair hasn’t given up yet.

Rosario said next steps include reviewing City Council minutes from the weeks following the certificate’s signing and pulling records for 1971 City Hall employees and starting to reach out to them — particularly members of City Council or higher-ranking city staff, and possibly their children — to see if any of them remember the gift or have an idea on where it might be now.

Rosario is also considering reaching out to Sparta, though that may be complicated. When the gift was sent, what’s now considered Sparta was five separate municipalities.

“I’m hoping that I can figure out how to reach out to the city of Sparta and just let them know that we found this and we’re looking for it. Just kind of a ‘hello,’” Rosario said. “It’d be interesting to see if we could use this (situation) to catalyze another sister cities program.”

Rosario said she hoped that making the search public would help with finding the statuette.

“We’re hoping that the statue is still somewhere local. It’d be cool to track it down,” Rosario said. “We probably won’t ask for it back, we haven’t had it for all these years, but we’d like to see it, if somebody has it. And just have a record of what came, because that’s awesome.”