The prosecution in Cyprus of an Italian citizen for illicit excavation in 1878 is a very early case in modern cultural heritage law. In taking over from the Ottoman empire the administration of Cyprus in June 1878, Britain inherited the Ottoman legal system, including its 1874 law on antiquities. Four months later, the British arrested Alessandro Palma di Cesnola for flouting a newly announced ban on excavation. The evidence of official, confidential records reveals the steps leading to the Italian’s arrest, trial and conviction in court. His trial followed Ottoman legal procedures, but the verdict was decided by the district commissioner, a British military officer unfamiliar with local law and languages. Alessandro Palma di Cesnola’s claims of American citizenship and a diplomatic status are shown to have been invalid. A closing review suggests that the British Museum was influential in prompting the ban on excavation and that moral and financial pressures led Alessandro Palma di Cesnola to ignore it.