How A Technicality Led To eBay Halting A $40,000 Auction Over This Scrap Of Paper With 'The' Written On It

Sean Powderly the man behind ‘The’. Image: Supplied.

The idea for listing of a scrap of paper with the word “The” written on it on eBay came to Sean Powderly after a sleepless night.

What followed was a spectacular online bidding war which turned a piece of torn paper into something worth many times more than its weight in gold.

Image: eBay.

But late on Monday eBay pulled the listing, claiming it contained “no item” and was in violation of the site’s terms and conditions.

The decision left Powderly feeling ripped off and “outraged”.

“It feels unfair,” the now internationally-famous author, or abstract artist if you prefer, told Business Insider.

This is the email he received from eBay after the listing was taken down. (Click to enlarge.)

Click to enlarge. Source: Powderly.

Powderly said he wanted to make it clear it was the piece of paper that was for sale – not the actual word.

“I can hold it in my hand,” he said. “It is made up of atoms… it’s tangible.”

Removing the listing from eBay wiped all the bids for the piece of paper.

Powderly said both he and a family member spent a lot of time on Monday attempting to find out why the listing had been removed, adding he was given a number of reasons for the auction coming to an abrupt halt including that it was an intangible item and violated eBay’s terms and conditions.

So late last night Powderly relisted the item at 99c, changing the first line of the item description. He also posted on Facebook on Tuesday morning that half the proceeds from the new listing would be donated to the Cancer Council.

The new first line of the listing reads:

I am selling a piece of paper with the word “The” on it.

The first sentence of the old item description was:

I am selling the word “The”.

Ebay confirmed its customer service team had been working with the seller to relist the item and provided this explanation for ending the previous auction.

We do not allow the sale of intangible items or services on the site, which in this case, is the word “the”. The way in which the listing was originally described was describing the word, and not the piece of paper it was written on – which I’m sure you would agree is not tangible. We have explained that the paper is tangible, but the word “the” isn’t so hence the listing was changed to reflect this. We also educated the seller that their listing was on the wrong category and can also be removed under ‘miscategorisation’ since it was listed under the ‘books’ category.

Powderly said in the future he will be more careful with his listings.

“We have to start again from scratch. It’s also a shame that this item was removed right before my biggest announcement [about 50% of the proceeds being donated to charity],” he said.

Ebay said it was working with the Cancer Council “to ensure that the correct steps have been taken by the seller so the charity receive the 50% proceeds that the seller has announced on his listing”.

A short time ago it was up to $158.50, the listing can be viewed here.

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