Diplomatic Gifts: A History in Fifty Presents by Paul Brummell - review by Thomas Blaikie

Thomas Blaikie

Gold, Frankincense & Mozzarella

Diplomatic Gifts: A History in Fifty Presents


Hurst 423pp £25

If you were an important ruler, what gifts would you deem acceptable? A planetarium? Fifty blocks of cheese? A rhinoceros? A speck of moon rock? A whacking great scoop of diamonds? A fragment of the True Cross? I know what I’d like: a really good dinner service. The Duke of Wellington got four, three in porcelain and one in metal. You’d have thought the grateful gifting nations might have liaised, not least to spare the strain on the war hero’s cupboard space.

But with diplomatic gifts, practicality isn’t really the point. The least likely response from the recipient is ‘Just what I’ve always wanted.’ Paul Brummell, the author of this engaging study of fifty historical diplomatic gifts, from the Trojan Horse onwards, is currently the UK’s ambassador to Latvia, so he is well placed to explain the baroque manoeuvres lying behind these exchanges of presents. Diplomatic Gifts is written in a meticulous mandarin manner, with well-judged quips. It is only occasionally a trifle dizzying. On the whole, it is highly informative about this little-studied area of history.

Until the modern age, the diplomatic gift was an opportunity for the giver to engage in trade promotion. Hence, one of the

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