eBay Ends Auction Of Iraqi Relic

    December 18, 2007

A 4,000-year-old clay tablet thought to have been smuggled illegally from Iraq was removed from eBay just before the close of an online auction.

The tablet had a wedge-shaped cuneiform script and had been put up for sale on eBay’s Swiss site. It caught the eye of a German archaeologist, who contacted the German police. They passed the information to their Swiss counter parts.

Authorities have launched criminal proceedings against the seller, who was identified only as a resident of Zurich.

eBay ended the auction just minutes before the bidding deadline on December 12, Yves Fischer, the director of the Swiss federal office of culture’s department on commerce in cultural objects.

eBayZurich police seized the tablet from a storage facility. Officials said the tablet, which dates back to around 2000 BC, was "with great probability" smuggled out of Iraq. Switzerland bans trading of Iraqi cultural objects that were removed from the country after 1990.

Fischer said the tablet had not been deciphered. Cuneiform tablets were used in the Middle East and ancient Persia in the last three millennia BC for recording great deeds of leaders to everyday correspondence and bookkeeping.

"The authorities will now establish the facts to see what to do with the object," Fischer said. "If it’s a tainted object, then the goal will be to return it to Iraq."

The seller faces a fine of up to $43,000 or jail time if convicted of breaking the Swiss embargo laws on the transfer of cultural goods. Cuneiform tablets are included on a "red list " of endangered Iraqi cultural cultural objects by the International Council of Museums.

The culture office said it was the first time it had worked with Ebay to stop the sale of an Iraqi cultural object.