TORONTO - Internet auction site eBay has dropped the gavel on bidders who were hoping to get their hands on a hard-to-find symbol of Canada's highest civilian honour: one of the first Order of Canada medals ever awarded.

The medal of service, issued nearly 40 years ago to noted Quebec historian Gustave Lanctot, was pulled from the site five days early on Jan. 1 because it violated eBay's policy banning the sale of government property, a spokeswoman said Wednesday.

The policy prohibits the sale of government IDs and licences, including birth certificates, passports and "any die, seal or stamp provided by, belonging to, or used by a government department, diplomatic or military authority appointed by or acting under the authority of Her Majesty.''

"We have the trust and safety and policy team that review the site 24/7 looking for items that may potentially infringe on any of our prohibited items policies, and that's how this one was brought to our attention,'' said eBay public relations manager Erin Sufrin.

"As part of that, it was determined that the Order of Canada medal fell under that policy and was, therefore, not appropriate to be for sale on eBay.''

The Order of Canada, first established in 1967, is awarded annually to recognize a lifetime of outstanding achievement, dedication to the community and service to the country. The medal of service was discontinued in 1972.

Christopher McCreery, an author and expert on the history of the award, was among those trying to buy the sterling silver, snowflake-shaped medal while it was up for auction.

Some 20 bidders pushed the price to a staggering US$12,000 before the auction was pulled, but McCreery said he doubts anyone was really willing to pay so much for a medal that's probably only worth between C$5,000 and C$6,000.

"None of the bidders beyond the $5,000 mark had ever spent more than $15 or $20 on used DVDs or keychains on eBay, which made me a bit suspicious as to whether someone was purposefully inflating the price of the medals,'' he said.

An e-mail to the seller, identified only as dalida44, was not immediately returned Wednesday.

McCreery said he received an e-mail from eBay indicating that the auction was being cancelled, but received no explanation why -- beyond the fact it had nothing to do with the integrity of the still-anonymous seller.

"We hope you understand that, due to privacy concerns, we're unable to discuss the details of why this listing was ended,'' the message read.

"However, please note that the removal of this listing should not suggest that this seller's standing in the eBay community has been called into question.''

Of the 389 medals of service awarded, only about 125 are still in existence because the remainder were exchanged for the officer insignia and melted by the Royal Canadian Mint, said McCreery, author of "The Order of Canada: Its Origins, History and Development.''

While the chance to buy an Order of Canada medal doesn't come along every day, they do occasionally turn up for sale in auctions in Canada and in the United Kingdom, he added.

"It'll certainly come up again if it goes into a collection. Collections get bought and sold all the time, so who knows? In five or 10 years, it may end up at auction again.''

In an interview last week with The Canadian Press, Rideau Hall spokeswoman Marilyne Guevremont said families or successors of deceased Order recipients can choose to return the award, keep it as an heirloom or donate it to a museum, but it remains in theory the property of the Crown.

"It's also hoped that such insignias, medals or decorations are treated with the appropriate dignity and respect, and disposal by selling and buying them is highly discouraged,'' Guevremont said.

Lanctot was awarded the Order of Canada's medal of service just five days after the order was established on July 1, 1967. Since 1972, recipients have received a different medal and are described as officers of the Order of Canada.

Today, 64 individuals are appointed each year as officers to the Order of Canada.