GENEVA - A 4,000-year-old clay tablet authorities suspect was smuggled illegally from Iraq was pulled from eBay just minutes before the close of the online auction, authorities said Tuesday.
Criminal proceedings have been launched against the seller, identified only as a resident of Zurich, officials said.
A German archaeologist had spotted the tablet bearing wedge-shaped cuneiform script on the online auctioneer's Swiss Web site, http://www.eBay.ch , a government official said.
The archaeologist alerted German authorities, who passed the tip onto their Swiss counterparts, said Yves Fischer, who directs the Swiss Federal Office of Culture's department on commerce in cultural objects.
EBay Inc. stopped the auction on Dec. 12 "a few minutes before the end" of its bidding deadline, Fischer said. Zurich police then confiscated the small tablet - about the size of a business card - from a storage facility.
The tablet, which dates from around 2000 B.C., was "with great probability" smuggled out of Iraq illegally, government officials said in a statement.
Fischer said the tablet had yet to be deciphered. Cuneiform tablets were used throughout the Middle East and ancient Persia during the last three millennia B.C. for recording everything from great deeds of leaders to routine correspondence and bookkeeping.
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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 $430,000 or jail time if convicted of breaking Swiss embargo laws on the transfer of cultural goods.
Switzerland bans commerce in Iraqi cultural objects that were removed from the country after 1990.
Cuneiform tablets are included on the International Council of Museums' "red list" of especially endangered Iraqi cultural objects.
The culture office said it was the first time it cooperated with Ebay to stop the sale of an Iraqi cultural object.
The Iraqi National Library is believed to have lost numerous objects after it was burned and looted following the 2003 U.S.-led invasion of Iraq.
The National Museum also was looted following the fall of Baghdad on April 9, 2003. Many treasures have been returned but the museum remains shut for security reasons.