When you are a leader everything matters—the way you speak, the way you dress and the way you comport yourself. Everything you do and everything you say sends a message, including the gifts you give.
Gift giving has always smoothed the diplomacy of business and politics. A gift can touch the recipient with its thoughtfulness, strengthening the relationship and moving it forward. But it can just as easily offend with its carelessness.
Stephan Loewentheil, antiquarian book dealer and founder of the 19th Century Rare Book and Photograph Shop, has helped celebrities, leaders of industry, heads of state, and four U.S. presidents choose the perfect gift for more than thirty years. And what would that perfect gift be? A book, of course.
Benjamin Wolff: How did you begin advising the White House on gifts to foreign dignitaries?
Stephan Loewentheil: Our story started many years ago at an antique show in Manhattan where we were showing rare books and manuscripts. A lovely man walked into the booth, spent an hour looking around, and introduced himself to me as Ambassador Verner Reed, Chief of Protocol to President George H. W. Bush. Then he said, "I've had an idea—I'd like to suggest to the president that we use your books as gifts to visiting heads of state."
The very first book that we collaborated on was John Marshall's The Life of George Washington, which was given to Soviet leader Mikhail Gorbachev at the time when the Soviet Union was beginning a new era. Ambassador Reed and President Bush thought that this would be a lovely gift to read and contemplate.
Our colleague, bookbinder Judith Ivry, built a beautiful presentation box for it with a gold stamp that says, "Presented to President Mikhail Gorbachev by President George Bush on the occasion of the state visit to the United States." So we have the combination of the intellectual content of the book with the imprimatur of the president. That's what transformed the book into a unique object.
Over the years we've placed books for every president through Obama. Some of them were quite interesting. President Francois Mitterrand of France, a noted book collector, was given by President Bush the first edition of Charles Baudelaire's French translation of the Tales of Edgar Allan Poe. Since Baudelaire's time, Poe has been revered by the French. That was a wonderful gift.
Another one we're very proud of is when President Clinton gave Pope John Paul II, who was a published poet, the first edition of the poems of Ralph Waldo Emerson. The common stream in most of our gifts through the White House has been to show something distinctive about American culture or history and combine it with the interests of the individuals who will be the recipients.
Wolff: What does it say about a leader to gift a rare book? Does it send a message about their leadership?
Loewentheil: It's a mark of respect for your recipient's intellect. We've had wonderful relationships with a number of leaders who give antiquarian books to inspire people to think in a direction that they believe will help them.
William Simon, former Secretary of the Treasury, was one of the earliest financial titans to use our services. At one time Mr. Simon bought Sun Tzu's The Art of War for one of his lawyers who was involved in a particularly acrimonious financial deal.
Another example is Tom Clancy, who was a major financial figure in the literary world. Clancy acquired the original manuscript of the Oliver Wendell Holmes poem "Old Ironsides" from us as a gift for an agent who had placed books for him.
In my experience, many business leaders are great intellectuals. They've sublimated many of their intellectual thoughts into business and being successful financially, but they still have other interests. By giving a book, you're saying to someone, "Don't pigeon-hole me. I want to guide you to look at the world in a way that manifests intellectual concerns in addition to financial concerns." It speaks very highly of a leader to give a thoughtful gift—and there's nothing more thoughtful than a book.
Wolff: A great antiquarian book is valued differently than other gifts. How do you define value?
Loewentheil: There are many meanings to the word value. There's a financial value and there's a cultural value. The gift of a book brings those two together because its financial value can be dramatically enhanced by the impact of that book on the recipient. When you give someone a book you can change their perspective on life and have a huge impact intellectually, philosophically and emotionally.
Wolff: So this kind of gift can shift the relationship between giver and recipient?
Loewentheil: That's right. Let's say you want to deliver a message to someone and they don't want to hear it. But if you give them a book that reflects that message they'll read the book—and all of our books are readable—and it may instill a transformation. That would be very difficult to bring about in any other way.
We've also had situations where business leaders wanted to change the energy or process of a group of people, and so decided to give multiple copies of an important book to the group to stimulate a new perspective.
Wolff: Purchasing and then giving an antiquarian book is not something most people have experience with. How should they start?
Loewentheil: The first thing they should do is find a reliable bookseller who's going to be able to help them through the process. We have the ability to research people as well as books so that if someone says, "I'd like to give something to so and so in this industry," we can find out a great deal about that person—subtly, without the gift-giver ever having to reveal themselves.
And you can give dramatically important books in the six-figure range and wonderful books in the five-figure range where, for a painting by a recognizable artist, you're really not going to get very much, and even less for a sculpture. A contemporary artist who may or may not survive the cut-off of time is going to be more expensive than a book that is 100 or 200 years old and is an absolute classic.
I would say the most important thing to keep in mind is that there is an antiquarian book at every price range on every subject. No one should think there isn't a book big enough for their gift, or small enough for their gift. A book by its nature reflects a huge breadth of thought, a huge breadth of value and almost every possible social or business structure that you'd like to reflect. It raises the intellectual stature of both the giver and the recipient.
This interview was edited and condensed.
Published here on Forbes.com
February 19, 2019