For centuries, the world’s leaders have presented other leaders with gifts—gifts that demonstrate their power and wealth, gifts that show their appreciation and deference, and even gifts that seem willfully eccentric. (The Obamas are the proud recipients of family crocodile insurance courtesy of Australia’s Northern Territory.)
Over the years, American presidents have received animals, weaponry, gems and jewels, textiles, and other curiosities and finery from heads of state and foreign governments around the world. For most of the 20th century, these gifts have been governed by strict rules that spell out who gets to keep what.
In a nutshell, the presidency isn’t all it’s cracked up to be.
Presidents may graciously accept plenty of loot from guests to the White House, but they do so on behalf of the American people. During President Truman’s time, the rules weren’t quite as strict—before 1966, presidents were allowed to keep some gifts for themselves with approval from Congress—but the thirty-third President was just as principled.
Clay Bauske, curator at the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum, said that it bothered Truman that the papers and gifts of other presidents seemed to be “scattered everywhere… So that was really the reason why, while he was still president, he started arrangements to create a presidential library so he could donate back to the federal government all of his papers, and gifts he had received. He actually had to literally sign a deed of gift to gift over his papers and the objects back to the federal government.”
It was a good precedent to set, ensuring that the American public could forever see and enjoy the trappings of his presidency, and it was one that is now the standard practice for all presidents.
But in 1978, two men decided that just being able to visit the spoils of state wasn’t enough. They wanted to claim some of the valuable artifacts for themselves.
Around 6:30 a.m. on March 24, the two thieves launched an efficient smash and grab.
While the security guard was on the other side of the building, possibly distracted by the sketchy behavior of a female accomplice, they broke into the Harry S. Truman Library and Museum, shattered the glass display case in the lobby, and absconded with three ceremonial swords and two daggers, all inlaid with gemstones. The whole raid took less than a minute.
Museum thefts are often a collision of nefarious intentions and institutional neglect. But that was not the case at Truman’s Presidential Library. The security guard on duty was alert and on patrol, and the alarms were in working order and sounded when the door was smashed open.
Unfortunately, the thieves were well prepared, and just faster. In 45 seconds, they entered the museum, padlocked the door preventing the security guard from reaching them, and took what they came for. They drove off, leaving only snowy footprints behind.
“Evidently the thieves went for the most valuable items in the case,” Dr. George Curtis, assistant director at the library, told reporters at the time.
Nearly 41 years later, the case is still active, but the FBI has yet to turn up any credible leads on the stolen pieces, now estimated to be worth over $1 million.
Like his fellow office holders, Truman was the recipient of some pretty wild gifts from foreign governments over his years in the Oval, including a “lucky” Tiger’s bone from the Prime Minister of Nepal. But, according to Bauske, he didn’t receive quite as many international gifts as his predecessors.
“It’s always been my feeling that part of that was due to the fact that, just emerging from World War II, many countries of the world were really devastated and just trying to recover. So there wasn’t sort of that big tradition of elaborate gift-giving among nations,” Bauske said.
Perhaps the gifts Truman received from his own citizens made up for the deficit. Bauske says some of his favorites at the museum include a bust of Truman carved into a coconut, complete with glasses, and a few portraits of Truman created using only a typewriter.
But when it came to ceremonial blades, Truman fared just fine. The weapons decked out in diamonds and other precious stones stolen that early morning in 1978 were gifts from the Shah of Iran, the Crown Prince of Saudi Arabia, and the Saudi Arabian King.
Not as much is known about the circumstances surrounding the sword and scabbard given to Truman by the Shah of Iran (it was also probably the least valuable of the pieces, according to Bauske), but the gifts from Saudi Arabia are a different story.
In 1947, Crown Prince Amir Saud of Saudi Arabia made an official trip to the U.S. FDR had forged something of an alliance between the two countries based on shared oil interests, but the relationship was still fragile.
During his 15-minute meeting with Truman in the White House on Jan. 14, Amir Saud “pa[id] his respects” and presented the president with a jeweled sword with a scabbard and a dagger. (According to The New York Times, “politics had not been discussed” during their meeting.) These pieces were crafted in gold and steel and inlaid with a few choice diamonds.
Truman did the only acceptable thing, and responded to the generous gift with one of his own—a signed portrait of himself. Three weeks later, after Amir Saud was finished with his tour of the U.S., the New York Times reported that the president also lent the Crown Prince his private plane, nicknamed the Sacred Cow, for the return trip.
The next occasion for gifting between the two countries was even more momentous.
In April 1950, Amir Saud’s father, King Ibn Saud, was becoming increasingly crippled by osteoarthritis, and had failed to find relief at the hands of his local doctors. (Reports also suggest that the king was guilty of not following doctors’ orders… and then sticking them with the blame for his lack of relief.)
A confidential diplomatic note was sent from the Saudi Arabian Ambassador to the U.S. State Department requesting assistance “in obtaining the immediate services of an outstanding specialist.”
The U.S. government agreed to the request and rounded up a cadre of specialists to send on a secret trip to Saudi Arabia. Truman decided it was only right to offer his personal physician, Brigadier General Wallace H. Graham, as part of the medical relief crew.
The trip was such a success that the King sent his thanks back to Truman by way of another set of ceremonial weaponry, this time a bit more high end. According to the National Archives, the sword featured a blade of curved steel, with an ivory handle decked out in diamonds and rubies. The dagger had a gold hilt and was encrusted with emeralds, rubies, and diamonds. Both came with an appropriately bejeweled scabbard.
There isn’t much information as to what Truman thought of these gifts, beyond the obligatory notes of gratitude, but they unfortunately caught the eye of at least two men nearly three decades later.
Truman was dedicated to ensuring that the American people had access to the important national artifacts from his time in office. In just under a minute, two thieves managed to rob us all.