- Associated Press - Monday, September 28, 2015

AUSTIN, Texas (AP) - Where to begin with this story?

There’s the soap opera angle, reportedly involving bitter infighting among city politicians over a precious gem thought by at least one person to be bad luck.

There’s the angle that sounds straight out of a Sherlock Holmes tale, with one newspaper writing of “the mystery of the Lady Mayoress’ opal.”

Then there’s the comedic angle, one reminiscent of that “Seinfeld” episode where an astronaut pen given to Jerry ignites an argument over the etiquette of gift-giving, against a backdrop of petty retirement community politics.

The Austin American-Statesman (https://atxne.ws/1FDeFZY ) reports it all began July 1983 in the Austin History Center.

That’s where officials visiting from Adelaide, Australia, gifted Austin a large brooch that features a sizable opal surrounded by smaller jewels - now worth tens of thousands of dollars - as the two mayors signed the paperwork that cemented their sister city relationship. In return, Austin gave a bronze longhorn cast on the 100th anniversary of the University of Texas, later valued at $1,200.

Now, more than three decades later, the Adelaide City Council is asking for the return of the opal, a gemstone that was once worn with pride by Austin mayors’ wives but that a city spokesman says has been sitting in a safety deposit box since the late 1990s.

“If it’s just being put away and not really valued, then we thought it would be a nice historical thing to put it back where it belonged,” Adelaide City Councillor Anne Moran told the American-Statesman by phone.

Moran said she proposed “tactfully” inquiring a few months ago about the opal on behalf of Genevieve Theseira-Haese, the new lady mayoress of Adelaide, the South Australian state capital of 1.3 million people known for its festivals, its wine and its beaches.

The new lady mayoress had been researching her predecessors when she stumbled upon the story of the opal, Moran said.

The lord mayor wears a “huge gold chain,” Moran explained, and a former lady mayoress had a similar piece of regalia made with Australia’s national gemstone. The Advertiser, a South Australian newspaper, reported that the opal was commissioned in 1980 and set with diamonds in a gold chain.

The opal, which cost $10,000 at the time, would be worth $50,000 today, The Advertiser said.

But the next lady mayoress thought the opal was bad luck and wanted to be rid of it, leading to an angst-filled fight among Adelaide councillors, Moran said. Though the superstition is by now mostly dead, some thought the red flashes in opals were the devil’s eye looking out, Moran said.

When that lady mayoress and the lord mayor visited Austin in 1983, they gave the opal to Austin.

“It was considered a very generous gift,” Moran said, explaining, “Austin has been historically the most popular sister city with the people of Adelaide. It’s seen as similar to us.”

The 1983 resolution the Austin City Council passed to become sister cities with Adelaide noted that both cities were founded in 1839, are capital cities and are located along rivers.

Austin City Council member Leslie Pool said she somehow happened upon a May article from The Advertiser about the brewing interest in getting the opal back. She plans to bring a resolution to the City Council in about a month that says Austin will look into returning the gem.

“If they want it back, I should go see if there is interest on council to send it back to them,” she figured. Pool said she’s interested in placing the opal on display in Austin in conjunction with the resolution.

Not everyone in Austin thinks the opal should be sent back.

Former Mayor Ron Mullen, who was in office when Adelaide and Austin became sister cities, said, “I would encourage us to not change history and not change what a past City Council gave us.”

His wife, Carole Mullen, remembers thinking upon receiving the opal, “What would we ever do with that? It’s just going to sit somewhere.” So she had a jewelry store place a hook on the opal, and she wore the gem on one occasion: to the Women’s Symphony League of Austin’s annual Jewel Ball.

The next Austin mayor’s wife was Lynne Cooksey, who said she wore the opal when representatives from Adelaide visited Austin.

“Oh, it is just gorgeous,” Cooksey said. She also said, “Every time a new person comes into office as wife of the mayor, I say, ‘Be sure and wear the Adelaide jewels, because it’s the most beautiful necklace you’ve ever seen.’”

Barbara Vackar also wore the opal when she was married to former Mayor Lee Cooke, who served from 1988 to 1991. She remembers placing requests to wear the opal to a staffer at the city, perhaps Cooke’s secretary, and someone would retrieve the gem for her.

“Back in those days we were going to a lot of formals . so it was great to wear, and I loved showing it off and telling people where it was from and who had given it to us,” Vackar said.

Cooke said it seems “outside of the principles that people have all over the world, no matter what culture: When you give something, you don’t ask for it back.”

Elizabeth Christian, wife of former Mayor Bruce Todd, said she wore the opal on a few occasions and “loved it and treasured it.” She kept the opal in a safe at their home, Christian said, and out of their own pocket brought the gem to a jeweler when a hairline fracture began to develop.

When she and Todd visited Adelaide, no one mentioned any controversy surrounding the opal, Christian said. They did ask about the opal and told her they hoped she was wearing it, she said.

Christian said she passed along the opal at an event welcoming Liz Watson as the next first lady of Austin when now-state Sen. Kirk Watson succeeded Todd as mayor.

Liz Watson doesn’t remember wearing the opal, said Kate Alexander, a spokeswoman for the senator. The opal was put on display in a Sister Cities exhibit when the new airport opened, Alexander said.

It appears interest in the opal waned after that. Former Mayors Gus Garcia and Lee Leffingwell said their wives never wore the opal. The same is true of Diane Land, wife of current Mayor Steve Adler, said mayor’s office spokesman Jim Wick.

If Austin does return the opal, it may not be left totally empty-handed.

A letter sent from Adelaide to Austin earlier this year says Adelaide would be willing to give Austin a “significant piece of local Aboriginal art” in return.


Information from: Austin American-Statesman, https://www.statesman.com

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