Cultural heritage, both in its material and immaterial forms, has been, and still is, one of the key elements that a State aims to identify and protect as part of its national identity. The first cultural heritage regulations, particularly in Italy and also globally, were structured with the purpose of retaining cultural property within national borders and avoiding, in this way, the dispersal of cultural property. This is the origin of the idea of a national cultural patrimony. How do legislations identify and recognise their national cultural patrimony today? Is the core goal of regulations concerning the protection of cultural property still to retain cultural property within national borders or, possibly, to facilitate the economic exploitation of cultural property? This paper aims to trace the main definitional features of what we consider ‘national cultural patrimony’ and the evolution of this concept, tackling the recent evolutions of cultural heritage policies in defining a national identity.