Published December 20, 2015
From furniture and food to fine art, members of the Obama administration received thousands of dollars in gifts from foreign leaders, but first lady Michelle Obama appears to have received the most expensive gift last year.
The State Department reported Tuesday that the queen of Brunei gave Mrs. Obama jewelry worth $71,468 in 2013. The flower-shaped white gold earrings, ring and necklace were studded with yellow sapphires and diamonds, according to the department's annual accounting of gifts published in the Federal Register. That's almost seven times more valuable than the most expensive gift received by President Barack Obama, a glass amber-colored sculpture of a falcon on a branch worth $10,400 from Qatar's ambassador to the U.S.
Not that the president fared poorly. He also received a large Azerbaijani rug with red, white and blue geometric designs worth $6,560 from the ambassador of Azerbaijan; a silver platter engraved with major world cities, their global positioning coordinates and distance from Qatar from that country's emir, valued at $6,500; a full felt-mounted zebra skin, a painting and sculpture worth $4,000 from the president of Tanzania; and a $4,000 brown upholstered chair from the prime minister of Singapore, according to the records.
Under federal ethics rules, the presents must be turned over to the government for storage or official use unless the recipient chooses to purchase the items from the General Services Administration. Few choose to do so.
Two who kept gifts were former Secretary of State Hillary Rodham Clinton and Teresa Heinz Kerry, wife of current Secretary of State John Kerry, according to the list.
Clinton was so taken with a black two-strand pearl necklace with gemstones given to her by Myanmar opposition leader Aung San Suu Kyi that she bought it for $970. That necklace was presented to her in 2012 while Clinton was still in government, but was recorded in the accounting of 2013 gifts because the State Department's Office of Protocol, which compiles the list, did not have the information in time to include it in the earlier report.
Heinz Kerry similarly purchased a silver and coral jewelry set presented to her by the president of Yemen for $425, according to the list.
Diplomatic gifts are often chosen for their symbolism and rarely for their monetary value, something evident from the 2013 report.
Amid tensions with Israel even as Obama visited the country in 2013, Israeli Prime Minister Benjamin Netanyahu presented Obama with a display case containing a tiny engraved chip with side-by-side texts of the U.S. and Israeli declarations of independence affixed to a Jerusalem stone. The gift, which included a magnifying viewpiece, was valued at $2,700. On the same trip, Israeli President Shimon Peres gave Obama a clock depicting U.S. and Israel time and temperatures worth $835, along with several books, including a leather-bound Hebrew translation of Obama's "Dreams from My Father" memoir, valued at $1,045.
Not to be outdone, perhaps, Palestinian leader Mahmoud Abbas gave the president a painting juxtaposing Obama and President Abraham Lincoln, a photo album of Obama's visit to the West Bank and a photograph of Palestinian-American veterans marching in a Chicago parade along with manger scene carved in olive wood. Those gifts were valued at $414.
The rift between the United States and Russia over Ukraine was not yet in full swing in 2013, and Russian President Vladimir Putin gave Obama and his family a porcelain espresso and tea cup sets along with a set of porcelain plates depicting scenes in Russian cities worth about $1,500.
The president of Zanzibar went for the personal, giving Obama a wooden chest containing 20 green kente cloths, 21 blue kente cloths and 20 white baseball caps, all emblazoned with Obama's image. Those, along with 19 black hats, 18 navy and 10 white polo shirts, and several decorative cloths were valued at $1,926.