18/10/2013 12:13 BST | Updated 18/12/2013 05:12 GMT

Beware of Diplomats Bearing Gifts

Much has been made of the apparent diplomatic thaw between the US and Iran, as exemplified by Obama's recent gift to President Rouhani of a Persian griffin-shaped drinking vessel, apparently 2,700 years old. But just as there have been those who doubt the veracity of Iran's professed dove-ish attitude, there have been some as-yet unverified reports that the griffin-shaped drinking vessel is in fact a modern fake.

This is not the first time President Obama has received negative press coverage for his attitude to gifts. In 2009, a present of 25 of the greatest US films to Gordon Brown proved unusable in the UK, when it was discovered that they were only compatible with DVD players made in North America. Obama also earned the ire of numerous critics when he ordered the return to Britain of a Jacob Epstein bust of Winston Churchill. US presidents have been on the receiving end of more unusual gifts than this: in 1826 the Marquise de Lafayette gave John Quincy Adams an alligator, which was said to have resided in the White House for several months.

This year, the hapless Julia Gillard provoked ridicule when she gave the new royal heir, baby George, a hand-knitted kangaroo. The Australian prime ministers have had little luck when it comes to diplomatic donations: Kevin Rudd's attempted gift of a jar of vegemite to the US in 2011 was stopped at customs by jumpy officials, who queried the provenance of the bizarre black sticky substance which he was carrying. Customs officials have often thwarted well-meaning gestures. It was reported that Israeli officials had dug up the magnolia tree which had planted at the home of President Shimon Peres had been unceremoniously dug up for "testing", just hours after its donation.

Allegedly as a cure for the common cold, William Hague gave the Australian foreign minister a tub of goose fat - a gift which probably says more about Hague's upbringing than modern Britain. Perhaps diplomats should steer clear of edible gifts altogether. A camel given by Malian officials to France, following its intervention to rid Timbuktu of Islamist rebels, was re-donated to a local farmer who promptly made it into a stew.

There is, however, a serious side to diplomatic gifts. They are not merely ephemeral speeches, smiles and handshakes, but instead a lasting physical record of a nation's interactions on the international scene. There is nowhere that this is more obvious than at the UN Headquarters in New York. Each member state is asked to donate one gift, representative of their country and its place in the world. The mismatch between such gestures and the countries' behaviour can be striking.

China's gift is a vast tapestry depicting the Great Wall: it measures 10 metres by 5 metres and weights more than 280 kilogrammes. "Look on my works, ye mighty, and despair" it seems to say. And yet China's contribution to the UN has not necessarily always been one to match its gift. In recent years its interventions have often been to block resolutions aimed at constraining the excesses of power by the world's more insidious and repressive regimes. On which subject, the Iranian gift is a stele displaying the Code of Hammurabi, the ancient exposition of the rule of law - something which the country's many jailed dissidents and democracy activists might find incongruous.

The donation of Israel, which has a complex relationship with the UN, appears at first glance to be a small grey rock. "Aha," its critics might say, "yet another example of the Zionist disdain for international institutions". But look a little closer: the rock is from a fourth century synagogue in the Northern Galilee region. It is inscribed with the ancient Jewish symbol, a menorah. The small rock represents the continuity of a Jewish presence in what is now modern Israel, stretching back thousands of years.

Diplomatic gifts feature too in the world of literature. Just think of Priam, King of Troy and recipient of history's most notorious offering: the Trojan horse. The mixed history of diplomatic gifts brings to mind another memorable scene: in King Lear, the aged King entreats his daughters to profess their love for him, in order to prove their devotion. Following bombastic declarations from the elder two siblings, Cordelia's is simple and humble, yet ultimately is the only truthful expression. Diplomatic gifts are in many ways similar. They can range from the heartfelt to the ineffectual, from the flippant to the painfully-ironic. Words and gifts are ultimately cheap - the only true way of judging a country is by its actions. No more, nor less.