In the past, all gifts from foreign dignitaries had to be approved by Congress, after which they could become the property of the recipient. But as the U.S. gained prominence on the world stage, a division of protocol was created in 1928 to help presidents entertain visiting dignitaries and of course, organize the customary gift exchanges. Today, foreign gifts—from paintings to ceremonial daggers—are sent to the National Archives.
On one occasion, during George W. Bush’s administration, a call was placed to the National Archives to pick up a puppy. The president of Bulgaria had presented the puppy as a gift during an official visit and because U.S. presidents are limited in the gifts they can accept from foreign leaders, it had to be sent directly to the National Archives. But a puppy is difficult to archive, so it was eventually placed with a family.
President Obama and his family have received everything from swords to a “robe of sheer white fabric.” In some occasions, countries have presented a collection of small gifts, like when the government of Great Britain and Northern Ireland gifted Obama, among other things, a package of sea salt, a small, fabric-covered personal journal, and a set of four coasters. Brunei tried the same approach, giving the president among other gifts, 12 scented votive candles and a tea infuser in the shape of a penguin. That same year saw the Sultan of Malaysia give the president a 20-inch steel sword in a gemstone encrusted sheath, while not to be outdone, the prime minister of Algeria gave the president a ceremonial dagger with coral stones and silver work. Though nothing can probably beat the gift of crocodile insurance given by the chief minister of Australia's Northern Territory.
But just as presidents receive gifts, they’re also tasked with giving them, which can be equally challenging. For example, when Obama gave then-Prime Minister Gordon Brown of the United Kingdom a selection of classic American movies on DVD, the choice of gifts was derided in the British press as boring and unimaginative.
The president’s participation in gift selection varies depending on the individual in office. Hand recalls that Johnson would sometimes suggest what he wanted to gift. But on most occasions, the Office of Protocol brainstormed ideas and ran them past the president and the First Lady for approval.
When trying to put together a gift for a foreign leader that the president did not know well, Hand would call a meeting with the ambassador of the country to discuss gift options, along with the Secret Service and any other departments that were involved in the visit, he told me. Not surprisingly, one major restriction for official gifts is that they have to be made in America. For that reason, Tiffany silver and Steuben glass were always popular choices. President Bill Clinton had a custom-designed Tiffany silver cachepot that he gave to many visiting heads of state.