The Washington PostDemocracy Dies in Darkness

Did Biden give Boris Johnson a $6,000 bike and get a Wikipedia printout in return? Not exactly.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson hailed Britain's relationship with the United States as “indestructible,” after talks with President Biden on June 10. (Video: Reuters)
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There are few things more awkward than an uneven gift exchange.

So when reports began circulating that President Biden had given British Prime Minister Boris Johnson a $6,000 custom-made bicycle at the Group of Seven summit — only to receive a photo of Frederick Douglass that had been printed out from Wikipedia in exchange — it seemed like a particularly cringeworthy moment in international diplomacy.

“The total lack of respect for Biden captured in one gift exchange,” Donald Trump Jr., the former president’s son, tweeted.

The reality, however, is more complicated.

For starters, the State Department paid $1,800 for the bicycle, Bilenky Cycle Works told The Washington Post. The small Philadelphia-based business typically charges $6,000 for a similar lightweight model. And the custom Union Jack graphics, matching helmet, bronze and silver badge displaying crisscrossed British and American flags on the head tube, and rush fees would have brought the total cost to $10,000 under normal circumstances.

The State Department initially proposed a budget of $1,500, said Stephen Bilenky, the company’s owner. On his website, he recalled initially thinking that he had been targeted by a scam when he received a “cryptic” email asking if he could produce a handmade bike for an unnamed foreign dignitary in less than two weeks, a feat that required working 14-hour days. He received a few hints — the foreign leader was 5-8 and from a country with a red, white and blue flag — but didn’t learn that the gift would be for Johnson until he’d already agreed to build the bicycle at a heavily discounted price.

“When your country calls, you answer!” Bilenky wrote.

The gift was intended to commemorate Biden and Johnson’s shared enthusiasm for cycling, the White House said. But if Johnson wants to use the bike, he’ll likely have to pay up. Britain’s ministerial code allows government ministers to accept gifts that are valued at less than 140 pounds, the equivalent of about $200. If they want to keep a more expensive gift, they have to pay the difference — meaning that Johnson could either end up paying roughly $1,600 for a bike he didn’t choose himself, or forfeiting it.

As for the idea that Johnson handed Biden a framed printout from Wikipedia? That’s also not the full story.

Officials in Britain’s Foreign Office did stumble upon a photo that appears on the Wikipedia page for Frederick Douglass, showing a mural of the famed abolitionist that was painted on an Edinburgh street. Melissa Highton, who took the photo, told The Washington Post that the Foreign Office contacted her and asked permission to use it as a gift for Biden, who has invoked Douglass in his speeches.

“I agreed and I gave them a higher resolution version of the image so that it would be a better quality print,” Highton wrote in an email. “I don’t know how they printed it, but, yes, I assume they got a high quality print on quality paper and a nice frame. I haven’t seen the finished item.”

Highton, the director of learning, teaching and web services at the University of Edinburgh, had uploaded the photo to Wikimedia Commons under a license stating that it could be used free of charge, and she didn’t ask the government for payment. She did, however, urge the Foreign Office to get in touch with Ross Blair, the artist who had painted the mural. He was similarly enthusiastic, telling the BBC that he saw it as a “great honor and a massive global platform.”

The fact that the print could soon be hanging in the White House “just goes to show that serendipitous things happen when you share openly,” Highton wrote. She noted on her blog that she holds dual U.S.-British citizenship and how that seemed to be an “added bonus” to the symbolism of the gift, which highlights Douglass’s influence in Britain and his repeated trips to Scotland.

Downing Street didn’t immediately respond to an inquiry about how much the gift cost, but a professional printing and framing job could be in the hundreds of dollars. U.S. presidents are barred from accepting personal gifts from world leaders that are valued at more than $415, and items that exceed that limit are typically sent directly to the National Archives.

British Prime Minister Boris Johnson met with President Biden on June 10 in the English seaside resort of Carbis Bay, ahead of the Group of Seven summit. (Video: Reuters)

Though some in the United States have interpreted the less-costly gift as a slight, there’s no indication that the Bidens are feeling snubbed. First lady Jill Biden was also given a first edition of a novel by British author Daphne du Maurier, whose work is often set in Cornwall, while Johnson’s wife, Carrie, reportedly received a silk scarf and a leather tote bag made by military spouses.

And, if nothing else, the exchange marks a reversal of the awkwardness that ensued in 2009 when British Prime Minister Gordon Brown gave President Barack Obama a penholder made from the timbers of the same ship whose wood was used to build the Resolute Desk in the Oval Office. Obama gave Brown a set of DVDs.

Amy B Wang and Karla Adam contributed to this report.

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