Queen Elizabeth II received several hundred gifts from the American people during her reign, including jewelry, photographs and an iPod. Some presents were forgotten by the presidents who gave them.
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WASHINGTON – At a Buckingham Palace luncheon during George H. W. Bush’s first trip to Europe as president in 1989, he dined on duck with honey and brandy sauce and sipped the queen’s private port, Royal Vintage 1955.
On display in the ivory and gold Music Room overlooking the 45-acre palace garden were gifts received by Queen Elizabeth II, including a small silver bowl with three little feet.
The president asked what it was, his wife, Barbara Bush, later recounted in her diary.
“The Queen answered `I don’t know. You gave it to ME,’” Barbara Bush wrote.
During her more than 70-year reign, Elizabeth received several hundred gifts from the American people, according to Sally Goodsir, a curator with the Royal Collection Trust.
“The exchange is a gesture of goodwill, and the gifts are representative of traditional skills or of cultural significance,” Goodsir wrote in an article for the journal of the White House Historical Association.
The Tiffany silver box President Joe Biden gave the queen last year is engraved with both an image of Windsor Castle and floral emblems representing Washington, D.C., as well as the home states of Biden and Vice President Kamala Harris.
The queen’s many gifts to U.S. presidents – which they accept on behalf of the nation but can sometimes keep for themselves if not very valuable – included a silver engraved box for Ronald Reagan’s 31st wedding anniversary, a silver compact makeup case for President Gerald Ford’s daughter, Susan, and a coffee table for President Dwight D. Eisenhower engraved with a map of Allied positions on D-Day.
The gifts exchanged between the royal family and the White House are carefully considered, according to Kate Andersen Brower, author of “The Residence” and “First Women.” Gifts for the queen were picked by first ladies in close partnership with the State Department so that protocol is strictly followed, she said.
Still, Brower added, “they can have fun with it too.”
“Ranging from iPods to brooches, American presidents have found creative gifts for the person who literally has everything,” she said.
Here’s a look at some of the notable exchanges.
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An overmantle glass was among the first gifts from the future monarch, presented to President Harry S. Truman during her first visit to the United States as Princess Elizabeth in 1951 when the White House was being renovated. The piece consisted of an English candelabra and a three-part mirror with an oil painting of flowers set in a carved gilt frame. First installed above the fireplace in the State Dining Room, it was later moved to the queen’s Bedroom on the second floor of the White House.
Two years later, to commemorate her coronation, the queen gave Eisenhower a gold trimmed, bone china vase with the crests of the countries remaining in the British Commonwealth. Identical vases were made for each of the Commonwealth countries with an extra for the former colony and close ally America.
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The first state dinner for Elizabeth was hosted by Eisenhower, during her 1957 trip to the United States for the 350th anniversary of the settlement of Jamestown, Virginia.
Eisenhower and the queen already had a bond because, as a general and Supreme Allied Commander, he’d led the American forces in Britain during World War II, notes Anita McBride, a board member of the White House Historical Association.
“So much of her strength and resilience was formed in that period as a young princess,” said McBride, former chief of staff to First Lady Laura Bush. “That was an interesting connection there for that American president and the young queen.”
Her gift to Eisenhower reflected that connection. The wooden coffee table is topped with a map tracing the paths used by the ships before the D-Day invasion.
“I shall deeply treasure the map table that you gave me,” Eisenhower later wrote to the queen. “It is a piece that will be a valued heirloom of the Eisenhower family for many generations to come.”
Made by hand
Before the queen’s 1957 visit, Eisenhower – an amateur artist – painted portraits of her then-two children, Prince Charles and Princess Anne. He offered both to Elizabeth and Prince Phillip.
“Naturally, they selected the one of the prince,” Howard Young, a close friend of Eisenhower’s wrote in a 1969 letter to the director of Eisenhower’s presidential library. (Eisenhower had previously given the painting of Princess Anne to Young and he was turning it over to the library.)
Notably, the prince – now King Charles – became a painter himself.
Another budding artist, Susan Ford, put her photography skills to work during the royal visit in 1976. Ford gave Elizabeth and Princess Anne photos she had taken – a mountain scene for the queen and a snow scene for the princess. She received from the queen a makeup compact imprinted with the queen’s cipher, “EIIR.”
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Elizabeth, who knows a thing or two about bling, gave an eye-catching, custom made brooch to First Lady Betty Ford during her visit to the United States for the nation’s bicentennial. A star burst of gold applied with five scattered diamonds and five Marquee diamonds radiates out from the center, which features the queen’s cipher.
Ford’s son Jack received gold cufflinks showing the crown along with her cipher.
Brooches were given in both directions during President Barack Obama’s 2011 visit to England. The Obamas gave the queen a vintage American-made brooch from 1950 featuring 14-karat yellow gold, diamonds and moss agate, which she pinned to her sequined evening gown.
First Lady Michelle Obama received a two-inch brooch with gold leaves and coral flowers in a red leather jewel box. That box was placed inside a larger box with the queen’s emblem that also included fine chocolates and tea. (Alas, the Secret Service doesn’t allow first families to sample any gifted food.)
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A gift for a ‘magic evening’
During a 1983 visit to the West Coast, Elizabeth hosted the Reagans on the royal yacht Britannia for their 31st wedding anniversary.
“It was a magic evening,” Reagan wrote in his diary.
The silver engraved box the queen gave the Reagans to commemorate the occasion sits on display in the private offices of the Reagan Library.
During the dinner toasts on the yacht, Reagan had joked: “I know I promised Nancy a lot when we were married, but how can I ever top this?”
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Pickles the puppy
The most commonly exchanged gifts between the leaders may have been photographs, including those given to top aides. Multiple White House officials received a framed and signed photograph of the queen during President Donald Trump’s 2019 visit as had Obama aides during his administration.
For his 1961 visit to Buckingham Palace, President John F. Kennedy inscribed a photo of himself, presented in a silver frame by Tiffany that included the presidential seal.
The queen added a special touch for a photo she gave to Barbara Bush in 1989 – but the first lady almost spoiled the surprise.
Elizabeth had recently visited a Kentucky farm whose occupants included one of the puppies from Bush’s beloved dog Millie. Exchanging pleasantries with the royal family when the Bushes arrived at Buckingham Palace for their luncheon, Barbara Bush asked the queen if she had seen the puppy while at the farm.
“She said rather coolly that we’d talk about that later,” Bush recounted in her diary, “and I thought, ‘Oh my, you are not supposed to ask the Queen a direct question or something’.”
But during the luncheon, Elizabeth presented Bush with a signed photo of herself with “Pickles.”
“I was so thrilled that I almost cried,” Bush wrote. “There was our sweet little puppy. She looked so big. Nothing could have made me happier.”
The gifts do not always go over as planned, at least not with the media. Some British commentators sniffed at the Obama’s choice of an iPod for the queen during a 2009 visit. American comics also took a shot.
“He gave her an iPod as a gift, which is perfect,’ said comedian Jimmy Kimmel. “Now she can listen to Lil Wayne on the treadmill without anyone bothering her.”
Rather than rap music, the iPod was actually loaded with footage of the queen’s 2007 visit to the U.S., an audio of Obama’s inauguration address, as well as numerous Broadway show tunes to accompany a rare Rodgers and Hart songbook. Elizabeth collected books and was found of musicals.
“I can imagine the queen must have appreciated the iPod because it was a uniquely modern unpretentious present,” Brower said.
Baseball bats and a mink coat
Presidents weren’t the only ones giving gifts to the queen.
During her 1957 trip to the United States, she was given a mink coat by a group of American fur farmers. The queen was wearing the fur when she walked onto the football field during a match between the University of Maryland and the University of North Carolina, according to Sally Bedell Smith’s biography of the monarch.
In addition to being curious about American football, the queen also wanted to “see how American housewives shop for food,” after spotting a Giant supermarket on the way to the game, Smith wrote. She was wearing the fur as photographers snapped her marveling over the supermarket’s frozen food section.
In 1991, when Bush escorted the queen to her first major-league baseball game – a match between the Baltimore Orioles and the Oakland A’s – she received personalized baseball bats for her grandchildren.
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Presidents and other federal officials are barred from receiving gifts from foreign governments under the Constitution unless approved by Congress. Gifts of “minimal value” can be retained. Items worth more are considered gifts to the people of the United States and must be purchased at fair market value if wanted for personal use.
Typically, the gifts are turned over to the National Archives and Records Administration for safekeeping and their estimated value is publicly disclosed. Some are eventually displayed in presidential libraries at the end of an administration.
Similarly, gifts to the queen from U.S. presidents become part of the Royal Collection and are held in trust by the monarch for the nation. They’re often included in exhibitions and temporary displays, including during state visits.
That resulted in an awkward moment during Trump’s 2019 visit to Buckingham Palace. Trump was shown the pewter horse he’d given the queen the year before, asked if he recognized it and replied “No,” according to royal reporter Emily Andrews.
Melania came to his rescue, Andrews tweeted, interjecting: “I think we gave that to the queen.”
Contributing: Susan Page