By Jesse Robitaille
Thirty display cabinets long and three decades in the making, John Powers’ “Banknotes and Butterflies of the World” exhibition combines lepidopterology – the study of butterflies and moths – with philately and notaphily.
With stunning effect, 120 countries are represented by a complete collection of 150 uncirculated banknotes issued by the Franklin Mint in stamped philatelic covers (or envelopes) postmarked in the capital city of its issuing nation. A real butterfly from each respective country is held within the cabinets alongside the word for “butterfly” in the country’s official language and other relevant information.
“I’ve always had an interest in coins and stamps, but growing up, butterflies were free; coins and stamps cost money,” said collector and exhibitor John Powers, of Cambridge, Ont., who’s also the founder of the Cambridge Butterfly Conservatory. “We didn’t have an allowance when we were kids, but my dad gave me a butterfly net and said, ‘Butterflies are free.’”
While Powers’ father was “very strict” with his financial philosophy, it allowed his young son to cultivate a life-long interest in the world around him. Since childhood, he has amassed a private collection of more than 20,000 butterfly specimens, including the world’s largest moth (see sidebar), and worked closely with other collectors, researchers, artists and museum staff. He has also travelled the world showcasing two other exhibits about bugs and butterflies.
“It’s a passion, and when I want something, I find it,” said Powers, of his desire to fully complete collections, adding he has more than 62,000 stamps with butterflies on them.
The collection of FDCs he’s displaying as part of his “Banknotes and Butterflies of the World” exhibit began in 1981, when he was visiting RJM Stamps, which is still in business in Waterloo, Ont.
“As soon as I found one of those covers, I thought it was pretty interesting,” he said. “I started to hunt them down, and it occupied my time.”
As for the 150-piece “Banknotes of All Nations” set, Powers completed that collection at the recent Ontario Numismatic Association Convention while his exhibit was being displayed for the first time. He filled the last hole, which was a banknote issued on behalf of the West African nation of Togo, with the help of fellow collector Chris Boyer.
“People really enjoyed it, and that really made my day,” said Powers, of his exhibit’s first showing. “It was worth working on it for 30 years to get that response from people.”
Powers said his end goal is always to complete a collection, so when another collector told him he would “never find a note from Togo,” he took it as a challenge.
“In two weeks, I found one from 1922, when Togo was ruled by the Germans, and I found a French one a couple days later with the help of Chris Boyer. That completed the collection of all the banknotes, butterflies and covers, so that was the icing on the cake.”
The rest of the banknote collection was sourced throughout the past 30 years, during which time Powers was assisted by a number of dealers, including Kirk Parsons, co-owner of Kitchener, Ont.’s Colonial Acres.
“Once I started building the collection, I found some stamps by the United Nations of flags of every country of the world, and I added those in because I always liked flags. It’s a combination of a lot of pieces relating to my interest in geography, history and science,” he said. “I put them all together to be unique.”
The long-time collector is now seeking a bank to sponsor his recently completed exhibit, which he hopes to display at stamp and coin shows across Canada in the coming years.
“I think the people in the coin and stamp world would certainly appreciate having it at their shows. It’s a beautiful centrepiece because it combines three hobbies, and that’s what intrigues me about this collection: it’s a combination of hobbies that have intrigued people for centuries.”
TEACHING WITH STAMPS
Not only a well-respected collector, Powers has also used his hobby interests as teaching tools during his career in education.
“When I taught geography in school, I used stamps,” he said, adding he taught for a school board in Waterloo for five years before joining the Waterloo Regional Police as a public relations officer for 20 years.
“It was a great job, the best job in the place,” he said, of his job with the police force, “even better than the chief of police. I visited every classroom from kindergarten to grade 13 and gave them a lesson on something.”
For one class, students were asked to research a country and draw a stamp to reflect its culture or history. It’s this ability to tell stories that gives philately its strength as a teaching tool, Powers said.
“Anything you collect tells a story; it just depends how much you want to dig into it. I’ve always enjoyed educating and showing people the amazing things of these hobbies.”