MONTREAL – Prime Minister Stephen Harper received the rarest and most expensive gift doled out at the recent G8 summit, a book given by Italian Prime Minister Silvio Berlusconi appraised by one dealer at up to $460,000.
It’s a gift more valuable than any recalled by some veterans of international summits and an uncommonly extravagant example of the souvenir trinkets world leaders tend to give each other.
It landed in Canada’s lap by sheer luck.
By virtue of this country’s place in the alphabetical pecking order – because Canada starts with a ‘C’ – Stephen Harper received the first in a series of serial-numbered, limited edition, marble-covered art books.
A limited edition book dealer with exclusive rights to distribute the tome in Canada says copy No. 1 – the one given to Harper – holds up to double the value of those received by other leaders at the July summit in Italy.
But Harper won’t get to keep the book. Because federal politicians can’t accept gifts worth more than $1,000, the book becomes government property and will likely be donated or displayed.
The books given by Berlusconi feature the works of famed neoclassical Venetian sculptor Antonio Canova and are among just 33 copies produced by Italian publishing company Fondazione Marilena Ferrari.
Next time they’re handing out gifts by alphabetical order, the United States might be tempted to simply call itself “America,” and the United Kingdom might go as “Britain.”
Otherwise, Canada gets the big prize.
“You have to know that copy No. 1 in this type of limited edition is always worth much more than all the other copies,” said Gilles Tremblay of Montreal’s Librairie Librissime Inc., which has distribution rights to the book in Canada.
The value of the books has been cited at about 150,000 euros – or $233,000 Cdn – but Tremblay said a top copy could fetch anywhere from 10 to 200 per cent more.
Alas, the 24-kilogram, hand-made behemoth – inscribed with a personalized dedication and Canada’s national anthem – is unlikely to grace the shelves of Harper’s personal library.
According to Canada’s ethics commissioner, any gift valued at more than $1,000 must be forfeited under the Conflict of Interest Act which applies to MPs and a variety of other public office-holders.
Spokeswoman Jocelyne Brisebois said it’s the responsibility of the individual declaring the gift to have it assessed.
Items could wind up at the National Archives, donated or sold for charity, or placed on display. The Canova book has been forfeited but its final destination is not yet clear.
Tremblay heard from the publisher that U.S. President Barack Obama has displayed it prominently in the White House and he’s hopeful Harper will give it a similarly illustrious home.
“It has to be enjoyed by the general pubic,” he said. “I would certainly display it very prominently in a public place, taking precautions for protecting the opus.”
One seasoned veteran of international summits said the gift is far more expensive than any he can recall. But it’s among hundreds of presents that flow in and out of official hands each year.
Some other interesting – but far less pricey – recent presents to Canadian politicians include: cowboy boots to Harper from George W. Bush and Algerian wine and dates from the president of that country; a narwal tusk given to Harper during a 2007 Arctic trip; and a pair of Rolling Stones tickets for Defence Minister Peter MacKay in 2006.
If history is any guide, Canada will stick to a more frugal budget when gift-shopping in advance of next year’s G8 summit, to be hosted in Huntsville, Ont.
This country’s politicians have taken populist pride in erring on the side of thriftiness.
At the 2002 G8 summit in Alberta, then-prime minister Jean Chretien gave his counterparts Inuit sculptures. He handed out prints by Quebec artists at the 2001 Summit of the Americas in Quebec City. Haida presentation plates and ice wine were among Canada’s offerings during the 1997 APEC Summit in Vancouver.
Leaders also got to keep the Roots leather bomber jackets they were handed for that 1997 group photo.
Heads of government also got to keep the pen-holders they used at the 2002 G8 summit, a piece made of rare fossilized oyster shells dug up from Alberta’s Milk River Valley.
Those were valued at $20 by the U.S. Office of Protocol. They were described in U.S. public disclosure documents as marble-based wooden pen rests.
At this year’s summit, Berlusconi also gave Harper a monogrammed terrycloth bathrobe, towels, slippers, a tablecloth and napkin set, an official G8 cotton jacket, a leather brief case and a set of “Who’s Who in Italy” books.
Harper also got a gold coin representing an imaginary future world currency, and a fancy watch – both of which he had to forfeit.
While the Italian government reportedly paid nothing for the Canova books, some question Berlusconi’s judgment in handing out lavish presents, given the austere and tragic circumstances surrounding this year’s G8.
Not only was the global economic recession a key theme. But it was held in L’Aquila – which had recently been walloped by an earthquake that killed more than 300 people and left 65,000 homeless.
At the time Italy was appealing to foreign countries to help rebuild a town reduced to rubble. Harper kicked in $5 million for a youth centre.
Even one admirer of high-end books called the gesture distasteful, given the circumstances.
“I think frankly, and I have no hesitation of saying this, that this is an outrageous thing to have done,” said Nicholas Hoare, a Montreal-based book dealer who specializes in unusual, high-end works.
“It was extremely ill-timed and most inappropriate to the occasion.”
Still, the books don’t seem to have raised many eyebrows in a country already divided over its leader’s unorthodox ways.
After allegations of corruption, judicial manipulation and cavorting with prostitutes, Berlusconi’s penchant for extravagant gifts caused no ripples.
Memorial University political science professor Osvaldo Croci, who studies Italian foreign policy, said Berlusconi remains popular in his country despite being besieged by scandal.
The cover of the Canova book is a bas-relief depiction of the artist’s “Graces and Venus Dancing,” set in velvet brocade with a gold-thread weave.
The marble comes from the same quarry that supplied Canova, while the paper is made of pure cotton. The books were crafted by 23 Italian artists using traditional techniques.
Fondazione Marilena Ferrari spokeswoman Chiara Cima insisted the special G8 versions were made at no cost.
“Our Italian craftsmen decide to make it free to celebrate made in Italy and Italian beauty in the world,” Cima said in an e-mail.
“In order to celebrate in the third millennium the genius of Canova, the most important masters in the field of Italian artistic craftsmanship have worked in concert, in the spirit of the Renaissance, and their generosity has made this gift possible.”