Diplomatic gift

A diplomatic gift is a gift given by a diplomat, politician or leader when visiting a foreign country. Usually the gift is reciprocated by the host. The use of diplomatic gifts dates back to the ancient world and givers have competed to outdo each other in the lavishness of their gifts. Examples include silks given to the West by the Byzantines in the early Middle Ages,[2] the luxury book,[3] and panda diplomacy by the Chinese in the twentieth century.

The Winchester Hoard (Iron Age) may have been a diplomatic gift.[1]

The Middle AgesEdit

In 757 Byzantine emperor Constantine V gave Pippin III of Francia a mechanical organ intended to indicate the superiority of Byzantine technology.[4]

Early modern diplomacyEdit

Ottoman EmpireEdit

Gift giving was an important part of the culture of the Ottoman Empire and of British-Ottoman relations. Ottoman diplomatic practices were mainly geared towards establishing Ottoman superiority in any foreign relations, and the exchange of gifts reinforced that view of "universal empire" that governed the bombastic diplomatic rhetoric of the empire.[5]

The memoirs of James Porter criticize the submission of the foreign ambassadors to Ottoman rulers:

"Whoever is acquainted with the Oriental practice, and knows the ostentation, pride, and haughtiness of the Turkish government, must know that they look upon, and consider such presents as actual tributes."[This quote needs a citation]

The role of gift giving in establishing diplomatic relations is seen in the Capitulations of the Ottoman Empire. First the queen sends gifts of tribute called pışkeşleri and with the acceptance of those gifts hedaya hayr-ı kabulda formal relations should be established.[6] This culture was associated with corruption and bribery, and was essential to maintaining diplomatic relations. Baron Paget once said "If we can't find money to give the ministers their usual presents ... we who have ever passed with an esteem superior to all other nations shall make ourselves the most contemptible."[This quote needs a citation] Similar observations were made by Henry Grenville:

"money is the supreme mover of all measures in this corrupt, irregular, ill-conducted government; however that might reflect upon a Christian state, it carries no infamy with it here."[This quote needs a citation]

England and ScotlandEdit

When Anne of Denmark came to Scotland in May 1590 she was accompanied by diplomats who attended her coronation and assessed the value of the lands and palaces granted to her by James VI. The goldsmith Thomas Foulis provided gold chains as diplomatic gifts for Peder Munk and the other Danish envoys.[7] Foulis made four gold chains for ambassadors attending the baptism of Prince Henry in 1594, those given to Christian Bernekow and Steen Bille of Denmark were heavier and more costly than those given to Adam Crusius from Brunswick and Joachim von Bassewitz from Mecklenberg.[8]

Diplomats brought gifts from the monarchs they represented and were typically given presents for themselves when they left, often at an audience ceremony known as "taking leave". A French ambassador at the court of James VI and I, Christophe de Harlay, Count of Beaumont, was rumoured to have caused offence by unexpectedly requesting valuable gifts. John Chamberlain wrote that Beaumont had blotted his reputation by "mechanicall tricks" when he left England, by asking for a greater gift of silver plate, receiving two horses and "pictures great and small with jewells", with gifts from English noblemen of his acquaintance.[9] By "mechanical", Chamberlain means conduct unworthy of the diplomatic class.[10]

Exchequer records give some detail of the gifts given to Beaumont. The goldsmiths William Herrick and Arnold Lulls were paid £459 in October 1606 for "two pictures of gold set with stone" which Anne of Denmark had given to Beaumont and his wife Anne Rabot, the portrait miniatures mentioned by Chamberlain.[11] Sir Robert Cecil gave Beaumont portraits of himself and his father William Cecil painted by John de Critz which cost him £8.[12]

A Spanish ambassador involved in the negotiations for the Treaty of London in 1604, Juan Fernández de Velasco, Constable of Castile, commissioned jewels in Antwerp as gifts to distribute at the English court. Against the current custom in Antwerp he tried to buy the jewellery on a sale-or-return basis and was flatly refused.[13] Velasco gave jewels to prominent figures in the houseshold of Anne of Denmark who seemed likely to promote the Catholic cause. Lady Anna Hay received a gold anchor studded with 39 diamonds, and Jean Drummond an aigrette or feather jewel studded with 75 diamonds, both pieces supplied by a Brussels jeweller Jean Guiset.[14]

Nineteenth centuryEdit

After the Congress of Vienna (1814–15), Rundell, Bridge, and Rundell, goldsmiths to the British royal family and government, prepared 22 snuff-boxes to a value of 1000 guineas each to be given as diplomatic gifts.[15]

In the mid 19th century, the Chinese diplomat Qiying gifted intimate[clarification needed] portraits of himself to representatives from Italy, Great Britain, the United States, and France as part of treaty negotiations with the West over control of land and trade in China after the First Opium War.[16]

Twentieth centuryEdit

When he was the US Secretary of State, James Baker accepted a shotgun from the Foreign Minister of the Soviet Union, Eduard Shevardnadze.[17]


Diplomatic gifts have the potential to seal international friendships, but also to be rebuffed, to seem mismatched, or to accidentally send the wrong message. Taiwan rejected the People's Republic of China's offer of a panda.[18] A 2012 gift of a "British" table tennis table to President Obama seemed ideal until it was revealed that it was designed in Britain but made in China, evoking worries about the decline of British manufacturing industry.[19]


Diplomatic gifts take diverse forms:


  1. ^ Alberge, Dalya (8 September 2003). "Golden hoard of Winchester gives up its secret". The Times. Retrieved 2 August 2010.
  2. ^ "Silken diplomacy" by Anna Muthesius in Shepard J. & Franklin, Simon. (Eds.) (1992) Byzantine Diplomacy: Papers from the Twenty-fourth Spring Symposium of Byzantine Studies, Cambridge, March 1990. Aldershot: Variorum, pp. 236–248. ISBN 0860783383
  3. ^ "The luxury book as diplomatic gift" by John Lowden in Shepard J. & Franklin, Simon. (Eds.) (1992) Byzantine Diplomacy: Papers from the Twenty-fourth Spring Symposium of Byzantine Studies, Cambridge, March 1990. Aldershot: Variorum, pp. 249–260.
  4. ^ Wickham, Chris. (2010) The inheritance of Rome: A history of Europe from 400 to 1000. London: Penguin Books, p. 228. ISBN 9780140290141
  5. ^ Talbot, Michael (2017). British-Ottoman Relations, 1661-1807: Commerce and Diplomatic Practice in 18th-century Istanbul. p. 10.
  6. ^ Talbot, Michael (2017). British-Ottoman Relations, 1661-1807: Commerce and Diplomatic Practice in 18th-century Istanbul. p. 106.
  7. ^ James Thomson Gibson-Craig, Papers Relative to the Marriage of King James the Sixth of Scotland (Edinburgh, 1836), p. 34, Appendix p. 16
  8. ^ Miles Kerr-Peterson & Michael Pearce, 'James VI's English Subsidy and Danish Dowry Accounts', Scottish History Society Miscellany XVI (Woodbridge, 2020), pp. 56, 77-78, 81, 87.
  9. ^ Elizabeth McClure Thomson, The Chamberlain Letters (London, 1966), pp. 58-9.
  10. ^ Norman Egbert McClure, Letters of John Chamberlain, vol. 1 (Philadelphia, 1939), p. 214.
  11. ^ Tracey Sowerby, 'Negotiating the Royal Image: Portrait Exchanges in Elizabethan and Early Stuart Diplomacy', Helen Hackett, Early Modern Exchanges: Dialogues Between Nations and Cultures (Ashgate, 2015), p. 121: Frederick Devon, Issues of the Exchequer (London, 1836), pp. 48-9.
  12. ^ Rachael Poole & Reginald Lane Poole, 'An outline of the history of the De Critz family of painters', Walpole Society Volume 2 (London, 1913), p. 58: Erna Auerbach & C. Kingsley Adams, Paintings and Sculpture at Hatfield House (London, 1971), p. 80.
  13. ^ HMC Salisbury Hatfield, vol. 16 (London, 1933), p. 85.
  14. ^ Gustav Ungerer, 'Juan Pantoja de la Cruz and the Circulation of Gifts', Shakespeare Studies, vol. 26 (1998), pp. 151-2: Óscar Alfredo Ruiz Fernández, England and Spain in the Early Modern Era: Royal Love, Diplomacy, Trade and Naval Relations (London, 2019), p. 134.
  15. ^ Marcia Pointon, "Surrounded with brilliants: Miniature portraits in eighteenth century England", The Art Bulletin, Vol. 83, No. 1, (March 2001), pp. 48–71.
  16. ^ Koon, Yeewan (2012). "The Face of Diplomacy in 19th-Century China: Qiying's Portrait Gifts". In Johnson, Kendall (ed.). Narratives of Free Trade: The Commercial Cultures of Early US-China Relations. Hong Kong University Press. pp. 131–148.
  17. ^ James A. Baker III, The Politics of Diplomacy: Revolution, War and Peace, 1989–1992 (New York: G. P. Putnam's Sons, 1993)
  18. ^ We're not wild about your pandas, China told by Richard Spencer, The Daily Telegraph, 24 March 2006. Retrieved 17 February 2014.
  19. ^ David Cameron's table tennis table gift to Barack Obama made in China by James Orr, The Telegraph, 18 March 2012. Retrieved 17 February 2014.

Further readingEdit

  • Jacoby, D. "Silk economics and cross-cultural artistic interaction: Byzantium, the Muslim World, and the Christian West", Dumbarton Oaks Papers 58 (2004:197–240).

External linksEdit