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Camel sculptures and Kazakh booze: A list of the best gifts US government employees couldn’t keep

Reuters/Jonathan Ernst
You shouldn't have.
  • Corinne Purtill
By Corinne Purtill


Published This article is more than 2 years old.

Presidents receive a lot of gifts from foreign dignitaries; they keep hardly any.

Federal law bars government employees from accepting any gift from a foreign government valued at more than $390. The number derives from a 1966 law barring gifts above “minimal value” to halt the flow of luxury cars and prize horses from favor-seeking foreign governments. A 1978 revision set that minimum at $100, with inflation-adjusted increases every three years.

Even if the Obamas wanted to hold on to the more luxurious items presented to them on official visits—the $42,000 sculpture of a Bedouin and camels presented by the Emir of Kuwait, say, or the engraved cufflinks from the Minister-President of Bavaria—they couldn’t.

The prohibition on expensive gifts is well known, but the gifting goes on anyway, with heads of state, ambassadors, and government representatives lavishing all manner of goods upon presidents, members of Congress, and other government dignitaries. In October, the US state department released a list of gifts declared in 2015, the most recent year for which data is available.

The gifts were all accepted at the moment of presentation (to refuse, the state department notes, would cause “embarrassment to donor and US government”) and then handed over to the appropriate authorities for archiving. Gifts to the president and his family go to the National Archives, and eventually to their presidential libraries, which are managed by the same agency. The Secret Service disposes of food and perishable items.

Highlights from the 2015 haul—including mechanical birds, foie gras, and a few thousand dollars worth of Kazakh booze—are below.

Pictures of you

President Barack ObamaSeretse Khama Ian Khama, President of Botswana31′′x 42′′ framed pencil sketch of President Obama
President Barack ObamaHailemariam Desalegn, Prime Minister of EthiopiaTwo 41′′x 29′′ framed photographs of then-Senator Obama’s 2006 visit to Ethiopia
President Barack ObamaUhuru Kenyatta, President of Kenya31′′x 25′′ painted black and white portrait of the First Family
President Barack ObamaPranab Mukherjee, President of IndiaPhotobook, “State Visit of His Excellency Mr. Barack H. Obama, President of the United States of America and Mrs. Michelle Obama to India 25 to 27 January 2015”
President Barack ObamaJalil Abbas Jilani, Pakistan Ambassador to the US29′′x 24′′ framed and matted painting of President Obama, decorated with floral and animal design
President Barack ObamaEnrique Peña Nieto, President of Mexico4′′ x 4′′ “Tree of Life“-style clay figurine including members of the First Family
Stacie Hankins, US Consular Chief in Abuja, NigeriaDickson Osa Omoregie, Consultant to the President of NigeriaMetal bust sculpture of recipient
Michelle ObamaAkie Abe, Spouse of the Prime Minister of JapanPlate of bone china, oval shape, with hand-painted image of First Dogs Bo and Sunny

Pictures of me

Antony Blinken, Deputy Secretary of StateCharles, Britain’s Prince of Wales, and Camilla, Duchess of CornwallFramed and signed photo of Charles, Prince of Wales, and Camilla, Duchess of Cornwall
President Barack ObamaKing Felipe VI of Spain12′′x 10′′ signed photo of the King and Queen of Spain
President Barack ObamaPrince Harry12′′x 10′′ framed, signed photograph of Prince Harry

Reading material

President Barack ObamaXi Jinping, President of the People’s Republic of ChinaBook: Friends of the Chinese People—Commemorative Stamps
President Barack ObamaRecep Tayyip Erdoğan, President of TurkeyBook: A Vision of Global Peace
President Barack ObamaUhuru Kenyatta, President of KenyaBook: Kenya the Beautiful
President Barack ObamaChum Bun Rong, Cambodia Ambassador to the USBook: Cambodia’s Birds
President Barack ObamaPranab Mukherjee, President of IndiaBook: Winged Wonders of Rashtrapati Bhavan
National Security Advisor Susan RiceGeneral Fan Changlong, Vice Chairman of the Central Military Commission, People’s Republic of ChinaBook: Let History Bear Witness to Our Friendship
Secretary of State John KerryNikos Kotzias, Greece Minister of Foreign AffairsTwo-volume book set: Portolanos—Hellenic Yachting Pilot
Tracey Jacobson, Principal Deputy Assistant Secretary of StateGovernment of TurkmenistanBook: Neutral Turkmenistan

Boxes and bowls

President Barack ObamaNarendra Modi, Prime Minister of IndiaHand-carved wooden jaali box with a small, wooden latch and photo of Marian Anderson’s radio interview in India on the lid
President Barack ObamaSheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, Emir of QatarSilver bowl with the Qatari insignia in the center, bordered by an alphabetical listing of national capitals and their distance from Doha in kilometers
President Barack ObamaEnda Kenny, Prime Minister of IrelandCrystal presentation bowl with personalized inscription and quotes by Irish poet W. B. Yeats along the top border with shamrocks with a round base
Supreme Court Chief Justice John RobertsItsuro Terada, Chief Justice of Supreme Court of JapanJewelry box
Vice President Joe BidenSebastián Piñera, President of ChileLapis lazuli box with gold-colored trim
Vice President Joe BidenAshraf Ghani, President of AfghanistanLapis lazuli footed bowl
Vice President Joe BidenAbdullah Abdullah, Chief Executive of AfghanistanLapis lazuli bowl

Practical matters

President Barack ObamaShinzo Abe, Prime Minister of JapanGPS-driven analog wristwatch with steel link band, charcoal dial, and solar panel face
Michelle ObamaKing Willem-Alexander of the NetherlandsPersonalized bicycle with bell
President Barack ObamaSaleem Al-Jabouri, Speaker of Iraq’s Council of RepresentativesBallpoint pen, silver pocket watch, and a USB drive
President Barack ObamaNajib Razak, Prime Minister of Malaysia2016 daily planner
President Barack ObamaHassanal Bolkiah, Sultan of BruneiGas-powered wine system, 10 argon gas canisters
Barack and Michelle ObamaKadyr Toktogulov, Kyrgyzstan Ambassador to the USTwo brown-leather cell phone sleeves, two tablet computer sleeves, one laptop computer sleeve
Secretary of State John KerryIurie Carp, Director of Cricova WineryPersonalized honorary storage cubby at Cricova Winery, Moldova
Rep. John Boehner, Speaker of the HouseKing Abdullah II of JordanBarbecue grill

Snacks, drinks, and cigars

President Barack ObamaBenigno Aquino III, President of the Philippines15 bottles of spirits, banana chips, chocolate-covered mangos
President Barack ObamaRecep Tayyip Erdoğan, President of Turkey6.25′′ silver-tone candy dish engraved with a star and crescent moon, and filled with Turkish delight candy
Secretary of State John KerryKing Abdullah II of JordanAssorted beef including Wagyu burgers, sirloin steaks, and rib eye steaks; two terrine de foie gras
Secretary of State John KerryErlan Idrissov, Kazakhstan Minister of Foreign AffairsVarious bottles of local alcohol
Sen. Christopher A. CoonsJuan Manuel Santos, President of ColombiaJuan Valdez “Samurai” coffee maker and pods of Juan Valdez coffee
Sen. Marco RubioJason Yuan, Taiwan Representative to the USDavidoff cigars
Sen. John HoevenVlad Filat, President of Moldova’s Liberal Democratic PartySix bottles of wine, bottle of vintage cognac
President Barack ObamaThomas Boni Yayi, President of Benin12 bottles of champagne
President Barack ObamaGovernment of CubaSeven boxes of cigars
Sens. Jeanne Shaheen, Mark Udall, John D. Rockefeller IV, Claire McCaskill, Robert Menendez, Debbie Stabenow, Jack Reed, Jeff Sessions, Mitch McConnell, Johnny Isakson, Chuck Grassley, Roger F. Wicker, Max Baucus, and Dianne FeinsteinSherry Rehman, Pakistan’s Ambassador to the US1-2 bottles each Chivas Brothers Scotch Whiskey

You shouldn’t have

President Barack ObamaAngela Merkel, Chancellor of GermanyFramed watercolor painting of men playing basketball
President Barack ObamaDavid Cameron, UK Prime MinisterFramed etching of Stonehenge
Secretary of State John KerryXi Jinping, President of People’s Republic of ChinaLarge framed embroidery depicting two adult swans and four cygnets
President Barack ObamaHorst Seehofer, Minister-President of Bavaria20′′ carved wooden statue of a barefoot man with a walking stick and red satchel
President Barack ObamaSheikh Tamim bin Hamad Al Thani, Emir of Qatar9′′ gold-plated mechanical bird (a Common Chiffchaff) that tweets, turns, and flaps its wings once per hour. Estimated value: $110,000
Vice President Joe BidenPrince Mohammed bin Nayef, Crown Prince of Saudi ArabiaArabian horse head in bronze with black ruthenium finish, a gold-plated mane, sterling-silver bridle and reins, gold-plated tassels, and cabochon blue sapphire on a rotating, red-crocodile-leather base with hand-chased sterling silver arabesque elements and gold-plated buckles
President Barack ObamaKing Salman of Saudi Arabia26′′x 22′′ hand-made and specially commissioned bronze sculpture depicting two horses, one rearing and unsaddled and one standing and saddled, made with gold-plated sterling silver, diamonds, tsavorites, yellow sapphires, rubies, and obsidian mounted on a piano-black-lacquer rotating base.

Chronometer shaped like a large winch from wooden sail ships with gold-plated casing, brass dial, crystal glass, and detail along the sides naming celebrated ships that made significant voyages.

Set of ten golf irons. Leather golf bag with white stitching.

Estimated value: $522,972

General Mark Welsh, US Air Force Chief of StaffPasquale Preziosa, Italy’s Chief of Air ForceBlack Salvatore Ferragamo purse

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