The days of shuttle diplomacy, detente and Koreagate may have passed, but the gifts linger on. Not for long.
The General Services Administration (GSA) is about to offer the public a custodian's-eye view of America's recent diplomatic and political history as it auctions off 182 gifts that were presented to U.S. officials by foreign governments over the past 15 years.
There are mementos of Henry A. Kissinger's peripatetic tenure as secretary of state, including one portrait and four busts of Kissinger (two with glasses, two without).
There are reminders of the days of Koreagate, when newspapers carried daily front-page revelations about South Korea's lavish attempts to woo American members of Congress and when the GSA was deluged with Korean items, from jewelry chests to men's suits.
"I got Korean gifts in here left and right for a while," said Al Summer, the GSA employe who has watched over the gifts in the basement vault of the Forrestal Building for half a dozen years. "Seemed like nobody wanted anything Korean around the house."
Among the other offerings: a Cartier silver bell Iran gave to former defense secretary Donald Rumsfeld; a silver espresso set, complete with incense burner, from Kuwait to former secretary of state William Rogers; a tapestry that Taiwan gave former secretary of state Cyrus R. Vance; a brown suede Gucci bag (slightly soiled, according to the listing) that Italy gave Kissinger; the two men's suits that South Korea gave former representative Herman Badillo (D-N.Y.).
"Many of the recipients were very disenchanted at having to turn the gifts in," said the GSA's Charles Brenner, but he would not specify which of the more than 60 recipients were irked by the proceedings. (Presidential gifts are handled by a different branch of the GSA, and do not go up for public auction.)
Now, 15 years after the original legislation requiring officials to return gifts worth more than $50 to the government, and three years after Congress set a stiff penalty of up to $10,000 for officials who didn't turn over gifts worth more than $100, the GSA has scheduled the first open public auction of the items.
Preview showings will take place Tuesday and Wednesday in the Departmental Auditorium on Constitution Avenue between 12th and 14th Streets NW, with the auction beginning at 10 a.m. Thursday.
Before giving the public its chance, however, the GSA followed the law and gave the recipients of the gifts a chance to buy them back, and then offered them to other federal agencies, government museums and state governments. This process whittled the numbers down from about 260 gifts to the 182 that GSA officials hope to auction off for $40,000 to $60,000.
What use would a federal agency have for a dozen silver cigarette or cigar boxes, for more than a dozen men's watches or for tea sets and bolts of cloth? Brenner said some agencies might want a few knick-knacks to display in the secretary's dining room.
Others, like the FBI, he said, bought some of the items to use as props in their Sting operations. "Otherwise they'd have to buy them on the open market, and that would be more expensive," he said.
For statistics buffs, Kissinger was showered with more largess than any other government official below the president, to judge by the GSA's property listing. More than 50 of the gifts were given to Kissinger, including a gilded silver Russian tea set from Saudi Arabia, a silver presentation bowl from Cambodia, a black laquer jewelry box from South Vietnam (listed in poor condition) and a light green ceramic tea service from North Vietnam.
GSA officials said that, as of Wednesday, Kissinger had bought back just one item from the GSA stores: a $4,800 diamond necklace from Pakistan.
There will be more items from South Korea, 25, than from any other country, including three gifts to former House speaker Carl Albert of Oklahoma. Seventeen Saudi Arabian gifts will be auctioned, as will nine from the Soviet Union.
According to Brenner, there have been a number of meetings over the past two years between the GSA's keepers of property and the State Department's keepers of protocol, to discuss how to handle foreign sensitivities about selling personal gifts at a public auction.
"We know that it's a sensitive issue. We're glad that GSA officials are the ones that have to take the flak, if there is any," said John Murtha, an assistant chief of protocol.
But, he added, "It's made abundantly clear to anyone giving a gift to us what the restrictions are. We try to keep it to something small, so it's a token of a gift, symbolic, with little cash value so the individual recipient can retain it."
As for the public auction the law requires, "There's no way it can be done quietly," Murtha said. "It's rife with the possibility of hard feelings, but it's been made clear to foreign governments that we have no option."