After Donald Trump’s planned trip to a French cemetery for fallen Marines was canceled in November 2018, the U.S. leader had some extra time on his hands in a mansion filled with artwork. The next day, he went art shopping -- or the presidential equivalent.
Trump fancied several of the pieces in the U.S. ambassador’s historic residence in Paris, where he was staying, and on a whim had them removed and loaded onto Air Force One, according to people familiar with the matter. The works -- a portrait, a bust, and a set of silver figurines -- were brought back to the White House.
The decision to cancel Trump’s visit to the Aisne-Marne American Cemetery outside Paris is under new scrutiny after the Atlantic magazine on Thursday published a bombshell report that Trump belittled the American servicemen buried there, part of a broader history of disparaging certain people who’ve served in the military. Trump has vehemently denied making the comments about “suckers” and “losers” in the armed forces.
Never previously reported is Trump’s spur-of-the-moment art caper before leaving the ambassador’s residence.
The incident was met with a mixture of amusement and astonishment at the time, but caused headaches for White House and State Department staffers, according to several people familiar with the episode who asked not to be identified due to its sensitivity.
The story unfolded like this: While in Paris with other world leaders to commemorate the centennial of the end of World War I, Trump stayed at the official residence of U.S. Ambassador Jamie McCourt, the palatial Hôtel de Pontalba. The mansion, in Paris’s chic 8th arrondissement, dates to 1842. It has served as a flagship of the State Department’s “Art in Embassies” cultural diplomacy program, and is open to tours.
The president’s planned visit to the Belleau Wood cemetery was canceled when rainy weather grounded the presidential helicopter, according to a redacted email the White House released to rebut the Atlantic story. The U.S. Secret Service ruled out a motorcade for the 56-mile drive, according to two people familiar with the matter.
That left Trump with about six hours of free time in the ambassador’s residence.
The next day, Trump pointed out a Benjamin Franklin bust, a Franklin portrait and a set of figurines of Greek mythical characters, and insisted the pieces come back with him to Washington.
The People's House
McCourt, the ambassador, was startled, but didn’t object, according to people briefed on the incident. Trump later quipped that the envoy would get the art back “in six years,” when his potential second term in office would be winding down.
The art, worth about US$750,000 according to one of the people familiar with the episode, was loaded aboard Air Force One while Trump visited another cemetery before the flight back to Washington.
“The President brought these beautiful, historical pieces, which belong to the American people, back to the United States to be prominently displayed in the People’s House,” White House spokesman Judd Deere said in response to questions from Bloomberg News.
Trump’s move prompted some hair-pulling and a furious exchange of emails back home between the State Department’s Bureau of Overseas Buildings Operations and White House officials who organized the art transfer. Ultimately, because the art is U.S. government property, the move was deemed legal.
Trump, who once used his charity to purchase a large portrait of himself, is known to display in his private West Wing dining room mementos from various official trips and encounters. Over time that’s included a pair of shoes gifted by musician Kanye West and an Ultimate Fighting Championship belt.
A senior White House official said presidents are permitted to display personal gifts from Americans or heads of state while they’re in office, but must purchase them if they want to keep the presents after they depart.
The figurines that caught Trump’s eye found a new home on the fireplace mantel in the Oval Office. Depicting Greek gods, they date to the early 20th century and were made by Neapolitan artist Luigi Avolio, who was trying to pass them off as sculptures from the 16th or 17th centuries, according to London-based art dealer Patricia Wengraf.
In an “Antiques Roadshow” moment, Wengraf described the figurines as “20th century fakes of wannabe 17th century sculptures,” and of little value.
The French art-collection episode comes with a curious footnote. After White House art curators examined the pieces Trump brought home, the president was told that the Franklin bust was a replica. He joked that he liked the fake better than the original, two people familiar with the episode said.
The Franklin portrait snagged from Paris was also a copy -- of the one Joseph Siffred Duplessis painted in France in 1785, which was then held by the National Portrait Gallery a mile from the White House.
The curators removed a different portrait of the founding father from the Oval Office and borrowed the original Duplessis from the gallery. That one now hangs in the Oval, not the replica Trump ferried out of France.