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What happens to the gifts given to a pope?



Cyprien Viet - published on 03/11/24

Motorcycles, handicrafts, plastic dinosaurs or... real crocodiles: the items can be difficult to classify. Some are resold to benefit the Papal Almoner’s work.

“Do not lay up for yourselves treasures on earth, but lay up for yourselves treasures in heaven … for where your treasure is, there will your heart be also,” Jesus advises his disciples in the sixth chapter of the Gospel according to St. Matthew. But what about the “treasures” accumulated by a pope on his travels and meetings, the many gifts — some very informal, some of great value — that are offered to him?

To find out, visit the former Vatican railway station, near the Palazzo del Governo. This vast building is home to a luxury store that is somewhat disconcerting in the hushed atmosphere of the Vatican, with shelves well-stocked with household appliances, jewelry, watches, perfumes, clothes, lingerie … In this temple of consumerism, located in the heart of the world’s smallest state, where Italian VAT (value-added tax) does not apply thanks to extraterritoriality, you will find the same enticing advertising that can be found in every shopping mall in the world. 

The only tangible sign of the pontifical nature of the place: At the end of the entrance hall, to the left of the counter, a showcase displays gifts received by Pope Francis during his travels and meetings, which are resold for the benefit of the Office of Papal Charities

Gifts of all kinds

To avoid any diplomatic controversy, gifts from heads of state are not included in these lots. Some, however, might have amused buyers, such as the collection of video cassettes of a popular Iranian series given by President Mohammad Khatami when he met John Paul II in 1999, or the plastic dinosaur given to Pope Francis in 2014 by the grandson of Maltese President George Abela during a very family-friendly audience that saw the Pope playing with the children present in the delegation.

On the other hand, there are objects donated by individuals and associations. A sculpture depicting women and children in traditional Mozambican dress was offered at an initial price of 250 euros (as the time of writing, 1 euro is worth about $1.1 US dollar). A frame donated by Italian artist Luigina Mazzocca, depicting a tree covered with flowers made from resin, under the title Protection of a possible world, is priced at 4,000 euros. Antique skates are offered at 300 euros, and a model boat donated by an Ignatian spirituality group is presented without a suggested price.

The Lamborghini donated to Pope Francis was sold for 715,000 euros to benefit charity.

Some of the transactions were highly publicized, such as the resale in February 2014 of a Harley-Davidson motorcycle donated to the Pope, which fetched over 340,000 euros for Caritas of the Diocese of Rome. In 2018, a Lamborghini given to the Pope was auctioned off for 715,000 euros, to benefit an association supporting surgeons in Africa.

Trickier cases

Animals represent a special case: a live baby crocodile was symbolically offered to Pope Benedict XVI before his visit to Cuba in 2012 by the Rome Zoo, which then took charge of transferring the animal and reintroducing it to the island … the German pontiff being better known for his ease with cats than reptiles!

The other gifts are resold in a more discreet manner, and it’s impossible to know how much the sales of the Pope’s gifts bring in. “Nobody wants to talk … maybe because they find it embarrassing to say that the gifts are recycled!” admits a Vatican insider with humor. The fashion for reselling gifts, which in the 2000s encouraged the growth of certain online sales sites such as eBay, has not officially reached the Vatican. But the fact that the funds generated by these sales are earmarked for the poorest of the poor gives a concrete indication of where the Church’s “heart” — and therefore its “treasure” — lies.

PopePope Francis
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