By Katie Baines
When AAS friend, Amber Mizerak, at the US Embassy Singapore told me a contact of hers had a home office that was more like The Oval Office, she wasn’t kidding. Stepping into what Dan Piels humbly and affectionately calls his “man cave” is tantamount to being granted access to a private museum collection. Memorabilia, from signed photographs of former Presidents, to official Presidential Seals adorn the walls and two glass cabinets proudly display collectibles from cufflinks presented to guests at the White House, to an antique Air Force One dinner service. Dan sat me down with a coffee and talked to me about his impressive collection.
You have a passion for US Presidential memorabilia. What started your fascination?
The US Presidency has a great tradition of heraldry and the first use of a Presidential Seal goes back to at least 1850 with Rutherford B. Hayes employing a somewhat familiar design from 1877. The Seal has evolved over the years – President Truman modified it in 1945 and that core design is still in use today. President Eisenhower added two additional stars around the outer ring by Executive Order in 1959 and 1960 respectively to reflect Hawaii and Alaska becoming US states.
For me, it started when what was then the new Air Force One, one of two 747s, came into service in August 1990 - I was 14 years old at the time. It was unlike anything I had ever seen. There was a massive Presidential Seal painted on each side of it and my interest just took off from there.
I soon started noticing on TV that Presidents wear a tie clip, or set of cufflinks, or sign a bill using a pen bearing the Presidential Seal and their signature, which struck me as kind of clever. I then read a book by a White House photographer that said such mementos were often given out following a meeting with the President, even if it was just a quick photo op. Advance staffers generically refer to these gifts as “chum”, presumably because there is a large volume of such items handed out given the sheer number of new people a President meets on a daily basis.
My collection is focused on one small, aesthetic aspect of the US Presidency, not a political party. It’s truly bi-partisan and I’m proud to have items from both Republican and Democratic Presidents.
Who makes these gifts? And how are they chosen?
The White House puts the Seal on pretty much anything you can imagine, from mini-packs of LifeSavers and Splenda to fine china and everything in between. Most of the production costs are borne by the political party of the President in office and sometimes the companies themselves provide them at cost out of a sense of patriotism.
They come from a variety of vendors that can span from one administration to the next, but with subtle differences. For example, George W. Bush used A.T. Cross Townsend blue pens, with his signature and Seal in gold on the cap. When Barack Obama came into office, he started off using the same pen, but changed the pen color to silver and black, and changed the Seal and his signature to white and moved them to the barrel.
By the same token, each administration also seems to select new designers and vendors, to put their own unique stamp on these gifts. As an avid collector, I’m delighted as that’s what keeps me motivated to hunt for new items. I would say the sheer quality and craftsmanship of these keepsakes has markedly improved since I started collecting 30 years ago.
From what I’ve read over the years, and I can’t confirm this, the White House Chief of Staff’s office usually selects the vendors and then narrows them down. At some point, the President or First Lady may have the final say, reviewing a range of samples.
How do you research and acquire your collectibles?
I began researching pre-Internet and pre-eBay and so it was mostly items I could purchase from catalogues and shops in the Washington DC area - one of which I am still in touch with today, nearly 30 years later. When eBay came online around 1994, everything changed.
I wouldn’t say these items became commoditized, but it suddenly dawned on me that there were collectors all over the United States and around the world. This helped expand my collection exponentially as firstly, there was greater diversity and supply and secondly, prices came down to a relatively more reasonable level.
Since then, I’ve struck up relationships with several eBay sellers, as they will often have more than one item I’d be interested in; however, I always transact through eBay and follow its rules. Of the three DC-area stores I mentioned, one remains in business, Capitol Coin, located near Lafayette Park across from the White House. The proprietor, Nelson Whitman, has been dealing in such memorabilia for at least 40 years and has some fantastic items.
You must come across some counterfeit items from time to time. How do you recognise these?
I don’t claim to be an expert by any stretch, but after 30 years of hunting these items down, reading books and scrolling through eBay, you develop a set of instincts that are reinforced by an acute attention to certain details or clues; for example, the head of the eagle facing the wrong direction. Spotting counterfeit items is also easier given that it is illegal to reproduce the Presidential Seal for commercial purposes without official White House Counsel approval. Knockoff items are designed with a few alterations to the official Seal, such as not having the words “E Pluribus Unum” appearbon the scroll above the eagle’s head.
Tell us about other collectors you have met along the way.
They come from pretty diverse backgrounds. One is in the construction business in California, who, like me, just has an absolute fascination with this stuff, and I’ve collected some amazing items from him over the years, including an Air Force One flight jacket and the rug in my home office. There’s also a former Air Force One crew member – I purchased a lot of my rare Air Force One items from him and he’s since become a close personal friend, to the point we’ve met each other’s families. Another is a French national who just has a keen interest in Presidential Pens (Billsigners) and most recently I met someone from Croatia who has an amazing eye for these sorts of things. It’s nice to know that I’m not alone in my habit! I haven’t come across any collectors in Asia thus far, but hopefully this interview may bring a few of them out of the woodwork.
Why do you think memorabilia with the Presidential Seal has so much universal appeal?
I think it’s universally recognized because it travels everywhere the President goes and the President is one of the most visible people on the planet. That’s why in TV shows and in the movies the Seal and Presidential Flag are often recreated to add a degree of authenticity, albeit with minor alterations to stay within the law.
How do people react when they see the collection?
Probably a combination of shock and quiet horror! It’s almost entirely housed in my home office. Most of my working day is spent on a variety of video conferences there, so my colleagues certainly comment on it, as it’s not your typical background. One colleague recently teased: “Two flags? Fine. But seven? Isn’t that a bit much?”
What is your most prized collector item?
I don’t have anything that would be considered particularly historic, such as a quill pen used by Abraham Lincoln, but I do have a genuine podium Seal that I purchased from a former White House advance man. Most often the President speaks behind a blue, bulletproof podium (“The Blue Goose”), and those podiums travel with him wherever he goes, much like the Seal itself.
What would you aspire to add to your collection?
Great question. Like any avid collector, I get the most joy from the hunt and discovering something rare and unique that I didn’t even know was in circulation. I think the real crown jewel of any collector would be a Presidential flag that was actually displayed in the Oval Office. I have four Presidential flags but none that were ever displayed there and I’m not quite sure how one would go about verifying that they had. It’s tradition that when a President leaves office, he takes the flags used during his term of office with him. A small unit within the Department of Defense, called the Defense Logistics Agency, employs 15 embroiderers in Philadelphia, where about 30 new Presidential and Vice Presidential flags are hand-made every year. To give you an indication of the quality and attention to detail, it takes 45 working days to make one flag.
What would you hope for your collection in the years to come?
Just to keep expanding it and hope I don’t go bankrupt in the process! Thinking a bit loftier, my biggest aspiration is for a US President to actually see the collection in person. It’s the longest of long shots, particularly as they don’t transit through Singapore often, so I’m not holding my breath!