Dealer posts his stamp of endurance

Max Stern's childhood hobby became a business for 63 years.

Max Stern's childhood hobby became a business for 63 years.

CITY stamp dealer Max Stern has chosen the date for his retirement. "February 38th," he says with a chuckle. That's right, although he is approaching his 91st birthday, Stern is enjoying work too much to stop now. "Look at this," he says in excitement, showing me a stamped envelope an elderly lady brought in the other day. It carries the name and logo of the Singer Sewing Machine Company and in 1927 it carried a receipt to "Mrs Beatrice Williamson" in Tasmania. "Never seen one of these before," he says. "Not of great value but very interesting."

Among a cluster of certificates and awards on Stern's office wall is a "platinum" citation from the lord mayor recognising his 58 years as a Melbourne city retailer. But we are talking here of former lord mayor John So the platinum gong is five years old. Stern has now been 63 years at the helm. "The oldest original trader in the city," he says proudly. His first stamp shop was in the Empire Arcade, opposite Flinders Street Station, then, in Melbourne's Olympic year of 1956, he moved to the Port Phillip Arcade nearby, where he has been ever since. Despite new technology's king-hit on the world's postal services, Stern's business continues to boom, now occupying multiple arcade shops and a second floor.

It was back in Bratislava, Czechoslovakia, where he was born, that this lifelong love of stamps and coins began. His father, Moses, a haberdasher, bought him an illustrated Schaubek stamp album for his bar mitzvah. "It became a challenge to find the right stamps to fill the pages," says Stern. "In those days, you didn't look at the value, you just wanted stamps from as many different countries as possible." It became his career after March 1938, when the Nazis invaded Austria. Stern had been studying engineering in Vienna. "The Germans invaded on a Friday," he recalls, "and I went home to Bratislava on the Saturday. That was end of my engineering studies."

Stern and wife Eva migrated to Australia in 1948. "I had international contacts in philately by then and began to import rare Australian stamps from Belgium and France because the prices back here were higher than overseas." And there were always those surprises. Six months after he opened his shop, an old man came in to show him some old prints of kangaroo stamps. "They are die proofs," he told Stern. "My father was the engraver of the first Commonwealth stamps." That was another first for Stern, who phoned another dealer to check. "Don't let him go," said the dealer. "They're very rare." The items later sold at auction in Melbourne for several hundred pounds. "Today," says Stern, "they would be worth tens of thousands of dollars."

Prices vary for many reasons. A penny black, the world's first adhesive postage stamp, which was issued in Britain in 1840, is worth more if it has not been torn off from its white perforated margins. "With four margins, about $250," says Stern. "Penny blacks are not so rare."

He can dig out all sorts of treasures from his stock. A commemorative stamped envelope from the London-Melbourne air race of 1934 that is worth $150. An Austrian double thalercoin dated 1713 and priced at $300. "I'm still learning," says Stern. "I was in court once as a witness and the judge asked if I was the expert. I told him: 'I'm experienced but I'm not an expert because an expert can't be wrong'."

Max Stern is still polishing his soccer game, too. He plays every Sunday in a team at Caulfield Park. "I used to play twice a week but I got some minor injuries. Had a bit of trouble with a knee ligament." His wife died 10 years ago, but Stern, whose parents and siblings were killed by the Nazis during the war, has two daughters, six grandchildren and 12 great-grandchildren. His formula for a long and healthy life is simple: "Moderation in everything, keep active and take risks. The biggest risk is not to take risks."

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