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eBay: A tale of two listings

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An eBay auction for a clay tablet was pulled just minutes before it was scheduled to close, after authorities flagged it as a 4,000-year-old endangered cultural object that was illegally smuggled out of Iraq.

A German archaeologist spotted the tablet bearing wedge-shaped cuneiform script on eBay's Swiss website. The tip eventually made its way to Swiss authorities, who managed to get the listing pulled on December 12 a few minutes before bidding was scheduled to end. The offering price was $360 to $430. It wasn't clear if any bids had been made.

The Associated Press article about the pulled auction came the same day the news agency reported on a second controversial listing for an intelligence test that's widely used to help determine the competence of criminal defendants and the placement of students. Results indicating a low IQ can be used to argue for leniency in sentencing or to determine whether a student should be placed in a special program.

The manufacturer of the Wechsler intelligence tests said they are supposed to be sold to and administered only by trained professionals. It has warned that the eBay auctions could be misused for coaching by lawyers or parents who want to manipulate the test results.

But eBay officials have denied requests to remove the listings, saying there is nothing illegal about the selling of such tests.

The listing for the clay tablet, on the other hand, was prohibited under Swiss embargo laws on the transfer of cultural goods.

Zurich police confiscated the tablet from a storage facility. The tablet is about the size of a business card and it is believed to date back to about 2000 B.C. The script has yet to be deciphered. Cuneiform tablets were used throughout the Middle East and ancient Persia over the past three millennia B.C. to record everything from a leader's important deeds to routine bookkeeping.

Such tablets are included on the International Council of Museums' "red list" of especially endangered Iraqi cultural objects. 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 seller, identified only as a resident of Zurich, now faces criminal proceedings. The individual faces a maximum fine of $430,000 or jail time if convicted. ®

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