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Illegal sale stopped on Swiss eBay

Many ancient tablets like this one have been stolen from Iraq

(Keystone Archive)

A 4,000-year-old clay tablet most likely smuggled out of Iraq has been pulled from eBay just minutes before the close of the online auction.

Criminal proceedings have been launched against the seller, identified only as a resident of Zurich, officials said on Tuesday.

A German archaeologist spotted the tablet bearing wedge-shaped cuneiform script on the online auctioneer's Swiss website, said a government official.

The archaeologist alerted German authorities, who passed the tip onto their Swiss counterparts, said Yves Fischer, head of the Swiss Federal Culture Office's department on commerce in cultural objects.

eBay stopped the auction last Wednesday "a few minutes before the end" of its bidding deadline, Fischer said, adding that the offering price listed on eBay was €250-300 (SFr415-500).

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 BC, 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 BC for recording everything from great deeds of leaders to routine correspondence and bookkeeping.

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."

"Red list"

The seller faces a fine of up to SFr500,000 ($430,000) or a prison sentence 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 had 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 US-led invasion of Iraq.

The National Museum was also looted following the fall of Baghdad on April 9, 2003. Many treasures have been returned but the museum remains shut for security reasons.

swissinfo with agencies

In brief

1962: Switzerland ratified The Hague convention for the protection of cultural property in the event of armed conflict.

October 2003: Swiss ratification of the 1970 Unesco convention against illegal trafficking of cultural property.

June 2005: New legislation comes into effect in Switzerland in line with the Unesco convention. It was approved by parliament in 2003 obliging art dealers and auction houses to identify customers. Foreign owners of stolen artwork now have 30 years to claim it back.

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Protecting the past

The International Council of Museums (ICOM) is the international organisation of museums and museum professionals which is committed to the conservation, continuation and communication of the world's natural and cultural heritage.

The ICOM has a network of over 24,000 members in 150 countries. With 1,300 members, ICOM Switzerland is one of the biggest national committees.

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