JOHANNESBURG - South African military enthusiast Alan Coleman boasts one of the world's biggest private collections of war-related material, from swords used in the Napoleonic Wars in the early 1800s to British machine guns used in World War II. Some of Coleman’s pieces relate to Africa’s many conflicts, from Zulu spears to bullets from the Mau Mau insurgency in 1950s colonial Kenya.
Music from the early 1940s greets visitors to the War Store here in this city's Rosebank neighborhood.
The space contains a kaleidoscope of battlefield uniforms, military badges, dead tank commanders' helmets and soldiers’ torn, muddied love letters from World War I trenches.
But Alan Coleman specializes in war material from Africa.
He has deactivated rifles from South African troops who fought Cuban-supported Angolan forces in the late 1970s.
In some of Coleman’s rare footage, a Cuban fighter jet takes off to attack a South African base.
Coleman holds a tattered, stained light brown hat. It once belonged to a fighter for the South West Africa People’s Organization (SWAPO). A South African infantryman shot the fighter dead during a mid-1980s insurgency in what's now Namibia.
The hat, Coleman said, is "Russian-made, but then it was used by SWAPO. It’s obviously been in combat because it’s got a [bullet] hole. We’re not sure if this is blood or some sort of brain matter, possibly."
Not all of Coleman’s items are from combat.
"What we’ve got over here is from the Boer War," he said, referencing the conflict, dating to 1899, between the British and Afrikaners of Dutch or French heritage.
He focused on a toy. "It’s actually from the concentration camps, where the South African Boers were put into camps by the British. This is an original doll that was made in the camps for the Boer children. And it’s made out of material, with a painted face."
Some of Coleman’s favorite material was given to him by South Africans who fought with legendary British mercenary "Mad" Mike Hoare in the mid-1960s to overthrow the Congolese government.
"These items here are from that actual action. So we’ve got a bag here and all the stuff in here was either captured flags, and the guy’s personal stuff. There’s some photographs of him in the Congo, in his gear. This sort of stuff is very well sought after, because this is the real soldier of fortune stuff," said Coleman.
The South African mercenaries were immortalized in Warren Zevon’s classic song, "Roland the Headless Thompson Gunner," a standard on the War Store’s playlist.
People from all over the world bring Coleman war-related items.
"They’ll have it in their cupboards, from their grandparents, from generations before," Coleman said. "They don’t know what it is, and then we assess it for them. We even had a guy that came in the one time with a Victoria Cross. He had it in his drawer, from his grandfather, from the Boer War. When I told him the value of it, he fell over backwards. We got him over a million rand for that item."
That translates to $73,414 today.
With money like this at play, Coleman’s collection is protected by a sophisticated security system.
“Yes; we’ve got everything! Everything that can possibly be used, we have it,” he said.
Coleman sells to private collectors around the globe, but he says his quest for the objects of conflict has another motive beyond profit.
"The important part here is getting the history out of the woodwork [and] into the collectors’ hands. The collectors pay for it, so therefore they’re going to look after it," said Coleman.
Coleman owns a lot of memorabilia from World War II. Winston Churchill, Britain’s prime minister at the time, has a big presence in his shop.
Coleman points to a gray uniform. On its collar are the black lightning bolts of Germany’s infamous SS squad.
"We’ve got Third Reich, Nazi stuff here, and we get a lot of the Jewish clients coming to us and saying, 'How can you sell this stuff?' But the fact is, if we don’t sell it and keep it alive, it’s going to be forgotten. We have Jewish clients who actually buy the Nazi stuff, to keep it alive, so that people can remember."
Coleman said it’s fascinating to interact with war veterans.
"The other day, we had a guy that was 96 years old. He served in World War II," the collector recalled. "He was up in North Africa and then he went to Italy. Just speaking to the guys – they're living history. In 10 years’ time, they’re all going to be gone."
Coleman said he sometimes gets "unexpected" visitors, including men who served with the German SS on the Russian front. They, like others, come to tell him their stories.
Coleman travels the world in search of rare pieces for a collection he knows he’ll never complete – and doesn’t want to, either.