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12 Anglo-Am. L. Rev. 141 (1983)


"There must be a beginning of any great matter, but the continuing unto the end until it be thoroughly finished yields the true glory." With this quotation from Sir Francis Drake begins the first Annual Report of the Trustees of the National Heritage Memorial Fund: HMSO July 22, 1981. As the Trustees themselves observed: "The national heritage of this country is remarkably broad and rich. It is simultaneously a representation of the development of aesthetic expression and a testimony to the role, played by the nation in world history... But this national heritage is constantly under threat." Part of that threat is lack of adequate legal provision for the protection, conservation and control of portable antiquities. In this article we propose to examine the nature of that threat and to indicate those areas where reform is essential.

One of the difficulties that stand in the way of a comprehensive rethinking of the contribution of the law in this area is that hitherto it has scarcely been considered to be an identifiable area at all. While provision has been made over the years for the protection and acquisition by public authorities of land and buildings of historic interest, the protection of individual moveable items which might be recovered from such property has not fared so well. Such law as exists is spread amongst a multifarious array of statutes and common law principles which have emerged in a piecemeal and almost random manner. Because of this, not only is the law out of touch with modern conditions, but lawyers and laymen alike may fail to appreciate that the cultural heritage reflected in the tangible remains of the past is a concept that demands attention and requires protection.

In what follows, an attempt has been made to examine critically the web of law relating to portable antiquities not only for its intrinsic interest, but also because an awareness of the current state of the law must be the starting point for any reform and codification. To obtain a realistic appreciation of the present situation it is necessary initially to examine the civil and criminal law relating to the protection of portable antiquities in their immediate context; to discuss recent developments in the law relating to their conservation and the availability of funds, and finally restrictions on trade in antiquities. Accordingly, after considering topics broadly raised by treasure trove, and by the protection of ancient sites and monuments, it is proposed to discuss the National Heritage Act 1980, and the export restrictions which to some extent control trade in antiquities.


Reprinted with permission of the Common Law World Review (previously the Anglo-American Law Review).



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