Meghan Melvin

This monumental candlestick was intended as part of a large diplomatic gift from Napoleon Bonaparte to Fatḥ-ʿAlī Shah Qājār, then ruler of Persia. (The Shah likewise gifted art, like a painting of himself, to foreign ambassadors.) Napoleon’s diplomatic outreach to the Shah failed in 1807, so most of the commission was never realized. Only a pair of wine coolers, now in the collection of the Louvre, is known to have been made. Napoleon intended to make a powerful statement with this gift, using ample gold, large scale, and his characteristic decorative bees, which symbolized resurrection and immortality. Ironically, the candlestick’s designer, known for his grand creations in precious metals, went bankrupt shortly after this commission.

The age-old tradition of diplomatic gifts thrives to this day, now with much more public awareness through citizens' access to extensive media coverage. Chosen to reflect the strengths of the donor while honoring the recipient nation, such gifts can range from the humble to the extravagant—sometimes even the ridiculous. (What happens to gifts to the United States? The Foreign Gifts and Decorations Act of 2014 stipulates that all gifts to federal employees, including the President, valued over $375 become government property. A gold candlestick such as this would go straight to the National Archives.)

What might we imagine future gifts to and from Iran or France would look like today?

drawing of candlestick
Henry Auguste, Design for a candlestick, about 1806. Pen and ink and wash. Julia Cheney Edwards Collection. 2014.340
Author
Meghan Melvin is the Jean S. and Frederic A. Sharf Curator of Design.