Senate holds collection of foreign gifts

More than two decades ago, the head of the former Soviet Union, Mikhail Gorbachev, gave an ornate lacquer box to then-Sen. Bob Dole (R-Kan.) as a sign of friendship and diplomacy. The only problem was, the one-time Senate Republican leader wasn’t allowed to keep it.

Under the Foreign Gifts and Decorations Act, passed in 1978, senators and staffers must declare any gift valued at more than $100 to the Senate Ethics Committee. They then send the gifts to the secretary of the Senate, where the Senate curator decides how to care for or dispose of them.

“Ultimately we try and keep all the foreign gifts that a senator has received until he retires or leaves office, and then we’re able to decide what we might want to retain to keep in our collection here [or] what he might want to go to his archives,” Senate Curatorial Assistant Amy Burton told The Hill.

The end result is a veritable treasure trove of lovely and culturally significant items gifted to lawmakers from dignitaries around the globe.

The items, which range in value from hundreds to thousands of dollars, are kept in storage in the Capitol. Of the 600 foreign gifts catalogued since 1978, 122 have been rugs. Teapots and vases are other popular items identified with hospitality and friendship, Burton said.

Foreign gifts are stored — sometimes for decades — until their fate is determined. Lawmakers can purchase the gift themselves but are first required to pay for an appraisal.

If senators choose not to buy a gift, it can be transferred to the General Services Administration, where it is auctioned off to the public. It can also be donated to a non-profit charity or retained in the Senate’s collection.

Roughly 75 items have also been flagged for official use and are on display in senators’ offices.

The item’s value must be determined first, a process Burton calls “tricky,” given the unique and foreign nature of some gifts.

If staff members can’t make a determination, they sometimes contact foreign embassies. But that risks a diplomatic faux pas, Senate Curator Diane Skvarla said.

“You’ve received it as a gift, so it’s a little awkward to call up and say, ‘Well, how much is it worth?’ ” she said.

On occasion, a gift that doesn’t appear valuable is actually quite the opposite, as in the case of lapis lazuli. A rare blue gemstone found mainly in Afghanistan and Chile, it is very difficult to mine and is often made into a vase or box.

“We’ve had senators’ staff call and ask, ‘I have this blue rock, is it worth anything?’ ” Burton said. “I explain [that] yes, lapis is extremely costly; even the smallest piece could be well over the $100 gift limit.”

Other gifts, though valuable, don’t ever make it to storage. If broken or irreparably damaged while in transit to the lawmaker, the gifts are often discarded. If the senator receives a pricey food item, he or she can designate a local food bank or shelter to receive it.

Gifts containing alcohol aren’t quite so lucky. Since it is too risky to store, and alcohol cannot be transferred to the GSA, a “lengthy procedure that has many witnesses” is put in place to destroy it.

When asked if that procedure involved dumping expensive bottles of alcohol down the drain, Burton smiled and nodded. The same is also done for bottles of perfume.

Sometimes a lawmaker receives a gift that is not legal in the U.S. Skvarla recalled a senator being presented with a contraband set of elephant tusks in the 1980s.

“A member can’t very well refuse the gift politically,” she said. Instead, the tusks were donated to the World Wildlife Fund for educational purposes.

On another diplomatic trip in 2000 to Cuba, Fidel Castro gifted several senators boxes of cigars. They were donated to charity, Skvarla said.

When gifts make it through the screening process and are brought out of storage at the end of a lawmaker’s time in Congress, the Senate curator can negotiate to keep special pieces for the permanent collection.

The piece’s value can become secondary to cultural importance when it comes to entry into the Senate’s collection.

“Some of these objects are so beautiful because they are from that country, the handiwork of that country,” Burton said. “That’s one of the reasons why these are so special ... the diplomacy of the United States with other nations.”

Among the standouts of the Senate’s collection are an alabaster polar given to former Senate Majority Leader Trent Lott (R-Miss.) in 1997 by the prime minister of Canada and a leather-framed portrait signed by Queen Elizabeth II of England, given to former Senate Majority Leader George Mitchell (D-Maine).

To ensure that items within the collection don’t languish in storage, several are on rotational display in the Capitol’s President’s Room. Current gifts on display include an intarsia box given to Sen. Robert Byrd (D-W.Va.) from India and a replica of a Korean crown sent to a staff member of Sen. Edward Kennedy (D-Mass.).

While the Secretary of the Senate has seen an increase in foreign gifts in recent years — ranging from 30 to 60 annually — the Senate curator has seen a decrease in uniqueness of the items.

“The gifts back more in the [19]70s, ’80s and ’90s were more distinct,” Skvarla said. As of late they’ve become more typical, she said, adding that pens and ties are now popular items.

“I think that it’s probably caught on that there is a gift limit, and if you give someone a $1,000 vase, they’re probably not going to be able to retain it,” Burton said.

Some nations still continue to give lavish presents, however.

“The King of Jordan must have a very large staff; he presents a lot of lovely gifts,” Burton said.

Her office has also received many rugs from dignitaries of Iraq, Afghanistan and Pakistan over the last decade due to lawmakers’ increased travel to those countries.

When it comes to foreign gifts, though, it’s not always what’s on the inside that matters. Many gifts arrive in beautiful boxes, Burton said.

“Presentation is important in gift-giving, especially in other cultures,” she said, citing Japan, China and Jordan as examples.

And while Dole may not have been able to keep his Russian lacquer box, his wife was later able to appreciate one of his other gifts.

“There was a rug that had been presented to Sen. Bob Dole, and we still had it in our storage when Elizabeth Dole [R-N.C.] was elected to the Senate,” Burton said. “And so she had it on official use in her office.”