By John D. Thomas
If Anniston, Alabama, were ever to come under attack, Farley Berman's basement would be one of the safest refuges. The cavernous room is packed floor-to-ceiling with weapons of all kinds, including cannons, pistols, rifles, bayonets, suits of armor, and swords that date from 1200 B.C. to World War II. In the middle of one large table is a ceramic hand grenade that was carried during the Crusades, and hanging on the wall is a saber brandished in the Charge of the Light Brigade.
A 1934 graduate of the Emory School of Law, Berman owns one of the world's most extensive private collections of historic weapons. His favorites include a group of James Bond-like guns disguised as everyday items--a flute, a screwdriver, a pen, a pipe, a belt buckle, and a gear shift. Berman is fond of surprising guests with impromptu demonstrations of how these guns work--using blanks, of course.
In addition to weapons, Berman, a retired U.S. Army colonel, also has collected many curiosities related to the military. He owns the photographs of Benito Mussolini's parents that the fascist leader kept on his bedside table, Adolph Hitler's silver service, and Napoleon's personal field service. "Napoleon probably ate off that," says Berman, pointing to one of the plates.
Invariably, people who view Berman's collection are curious about how he acquired some of these rarities. The eighty-five-year-old, however, is notoriously tight lipped. For example, when asked where and from whom he purchased Hitler's silver service, he quips, "That's a good question. Next question."
In the past, the only way to see Berman's collection was to receive an invitation to his house. But in the early 1990s, he and his wife, Germain, who passed away two years ago, began thinking about what they were going to do with their vast holdings, which also include many works by well-known artists, among them Rodin, Remington, and Toulouse-Lautrec. With the opening of the new Berman Museum this past summer, his remarkable array of artifacts is gaining a much wider audience.
"I have it on good authority that you can't take it with you," says Berman. "And my late wife and I thought it would be nice to leave it to the people of Alabama. So I approached the city and said, If you build a building, I'll fill it up."
The 25,000-square-foot, $1.5-million facility, located next to the Anniston Museum of Natural History, features exhibits on the American West, weapons as works of art, art with a military theme, and World War II. There are some six thousand items in the Berman collection, which published reports have valued at $100 million. According to Gordon Blaker, the curator at the Berman Museum, "It's an outstanding collection by just about any standard."
Born in Anniston, Berman earned his undergraduate degree from the University of Alabama before attending Emory law school. Collecting art and weapons has been his lifelong passion, and it was even a diversion while he was studying law.
"I was collecting in a small way when I was at Emory in the 1930s," he says. "On Saturdays, I'd go to the pawn shops and the second-hand shops. At that time you could actually buy nice bronzes almost by the pound."
After graduating from Emory, Berman practiced law in Atlanta for six years before joining the Army in 1940. He initially worked in ordnance and bomb disposal and in 1942 was transferred to counterintelligence, where he remained for the duration. When asked if he was a spy, Berman replies, "We did a little espionage and a little counterespionage."
After the war, Berman returned to Anniston and went into real estate development. He did not, however, cut his ties with the Army. "I had a mobilization assignment with what is known as hip pocket orders," he explains. "I carried active duty orders in my wallet at all times, and if the Army wanted or needed me, all they had to do was call or wire and I could sign in wherever they sent me with the orders I carried at all times. As a matter of fact, I still carry them."
Does that mean that, at eighty-five, Berman is still technically on active duty?
"I am what is considered standby reserve," he says. "That means when they scrape the bottom of the barrel and they still need a warm body, they can call me. The chances are one in a million." During his more than half a century affiliation with the Army, Berman earned numerous awards, including the U.S. Bronze Star and the French Croix de Guerre.
Berman says his far-flung travels for the military had little to do with his collecting. He and his wife amassed most of their treasures during yearly excursions around the globe. "I would take a month or six weeks every year and travel," he says. "I used up four passports, which gives you an idea of how much traveling I did. I had dealers and collectors all over the world, and I would visit them when they had something a little unusual that I could afford."
Some of the more intriguing items that Berman has acquired include the bullet- and gas-proof Rolls Royce Prince Charles used during a recent visit to the United States (he also has two other Rolls Royces in his driveway) and a circa 1540 double-barreled pistol that belonged to Emperor Charles V of Spain. One writer described it as "the most important European firearm in America."
Perhaps the most overwhelming item in the Berman holdings is a royal scimitar dating from 1587 that belonged to Abbas I of Persia. The sword is ornamented with 1,295 rose-cut diamonds and many other precious gems, which are set in three pounds of gold. It has been appraised at several million dollars, and Berman says a Saudi prince once looked at it and said, "I dare you to let me make an offer on it." Berman, who has never sold anything from his collection, turned the prince down.
Profit and speculation have never motivated him. Berman says he collects things simply because, "I enjoy it. Some people like modern paintings. I like weapons and the older things."
Photography by Kay Hinton
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