Neil Brodie's Dec. 5 letter mischaracterized Britain's antiquities law.

Contrary to Mr. Brodie's claims, Britain's 1996 law, which provides museums with the right of first refusal of many ancient metal artifacts in return for awarding finders fair market value, covers more than just precious metal finds. Moreover, it balances its system of rewards with a series of disincentives for wrongful conduct. Punishments for failure to report a find, prospecting in controlled sites or trespass include abatement or forfeiture of awards, as well as the possibility of criminal liability.

Mr. Brodie insinuated, based on one 1982 incident, that Britain's law is a failure when every indication is that Britain's system works. In 1993 alone, 21 hoards of coins were reported varying in size from eight to more than 21,000 coins. Can Italy and other countries with similarly punitive antiquities laws make such claims?

Mr. Brodie argued, "The reporting of finds is a system that allows the reporting of destruction," but what the archeological establishment finds difficult to accept is that the general public probably discovers far more ancient artifacts than do archeologists. Britain's law merely acknowledges the realities of this situation and encourages private individuals to report their finds so that archeologists can perform more thorough investigations, if necessary.

In contrast, countries such as Italy offer finders only derisory awards and bureaucratic hassles if they report their finds. The recent story about ancient relics originating from excavations for a parking garage for millennium pilgrims to Rome being dumped onto a trash heap is an all-too-familiar scenario in such countries.

If the British system is not the "norm" as Mr. Brodie claimed, it should be. The general public will only cooperate with governments in such matters if the authorities treat them fairly.

PETER K. TOMPA

Washington