Collectors keeping busy under COVID-19 lockdown

By Jesse Robitaille

Between writing, researching, cataloguing and browsing online offerings to add to their collections, Canadian numismatists have no shortage of tasks to stay busy while under lockdown.

As March turned into April, much of Canada was placed under even stricter shelter-in-place and social-distancing orders, which are now expected to last “several weeks, perhaps several months,” according to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. These measures – meant to stop the spread of COVID-19 – have put an end to all physical shows, meetings, auctions and other numismatic events.

In the meantime, Jim MacKenzie, a member of the Saskatoon Coin Club, has devoted his alone time to photographing thousands of Saskatchewan merchant trade tokens for an “enormous project” led by fellow club member Ron Rogal.

“He has taken over the task of maintaining Cecil Tannahill’s catalogue by investigating and adding the tokens that have been discovered after the catalogue was last printed,” said MacKenzie, who added the first edition of Tannahill’s Trade Tokens of Saskatchewan and Their History was published in 1967.

A second edition is believed to have been printed in the early 1980s.

While Rogal has published an index detailing all of the new discoveries, he hopes to update the next iteration “with photos or rubbings of every new discovery,” MacKenzie said.

Used to reproduce complex surfaces, pencil rubbings are “a very popular way of documenting trade tokens,” he added.

“With some tokens that are extremely dark, a rubbing is the best way to extract the pertinent details.”

While the next phase of the project is on hold until his local museum reopens once the COVID-19 restrictions are lifted, MacKenzie has already photographed the obverse and reverse of more than 1,300 tokens.

He and Rogal have photographs or rubbings for about 1,500 tokens altogether.

More than 2,000 Saskatchewan merchant trade tokens are known to exist.

Working on his ‘lengthy numismatic to-do list,’ ONA Club Services Chair Steve Woodland has kept in contact with his fellow collectors and dealers by sending them his ‘want lists’ plus participating in online auctions and shows, including Trajan’s virtual show on April 4-5. (Photo by Henry Nienhuis)


Another collector has been busy cataloguing his own medal collections.

“I’m doing some updating and cataloguing of my collection because I’ve gotten a little bit behind on that,” said Paul Johnson, executive secretary of the Royal Canadian Numismatic Association (RCNA). “I put everything in an Excel spreadsheet with all the different pieces of information that I have on each item.”

His collections include centennial medals, train-related medals (with images of trains, not just words) plus architectural medals.

“I keep them all in different spreadsheets and try to update them when I can,” said Johnson, who added medals generally require “a bit more information than just normal Canadian coins.”

“It’s certainly important to know what you have and to make sure you’re not buying duplicates. And obviously, it helps when you eventually go to sell your collection. I’ve been collecting for over 50 years, so it’s amazing what you accumulate over that amount of time.”

His collection of centennial medals includes about 250 different pieces while his train medals number about 1,200.

Johnson is also busy planning this year’s RCNA Convention, which is slated for July 21-25 in Dartmouth, N.S.

“It keeps me pretty busy during the day,” he said, adding planning is going ahead as of early April despite the widespread shutdowns.

Any paid registrants will be fully refunded if the convention is cancelled, Johnson added.


James Williston, an honorary life member of the Calgary Numismatic Society, recently saw fellow club member Tim Saunders ‘in the disinfecting-wipe aisle’ of their local grocery store.

James Williston, the former president and an honorary life member of the Calgary Numismatic Society (CNS), has been trying to stay connected with collectors as much as he can during the lockdown.

The CNS held one of the last major coin shows in Canada – its annual Spring Money Fair – on Feb. 29-March 1.

Since then, he’s seen his fellow club members only sparingly and has instead kept in contact through digital means (although he recently saw CNS member Tim Saunders “in the disinfecting-wipe aisle” of their local grocery store).

“Tim had just come back from Albern Coin and bought some two-by-two holders to organize his collection,” said Williston.

He’s also been in touch with CNS member Logan Kehoe, who was in self-isolation in his basement for two weeks after returning from a vacation in Europe in mid-March.

“He told me he’s been planning to start his eBay store. He always has a table at our coin meetings and is really involved in numismatics, so I wasn’t really surprised.”

Earlier that month, Williston also gave his collection of encased coins to Eric Jensen – a CNS member and Fellow of the Canadian Numismatic Research Society – to develop a database.

“I’ve been emailing him the odd item I pick up on eBay – three or four in the last two weeks – to add to his database,” he said.

Williston is also part of a group of collectors who – in better times – meet at the local flea market every Sunday to “talk coins and see what we’ve all picked up over the week.”

“That’s stopped now, but Eric is still working on his catalogue, so I send him whatever I can.”


Other collectors, like Ontario Numismatic Association (ONA) President Scott Douglas, have focused their efforts on “research and writing that always seems to get left behind.”

“I am also looking at some of my collections and reacquainting myself with some of my tokens and medals. Also, I am reholdering some pieces as I never seem to be happy with how I store my medals.”

With the cancellation of the ONA Convention – originally scheduled for this May in Burlington, Ont. – Douglas has also been in regular contact with the show’s organizing committee, dealers and other collectors.

“I have been inundated with emails and phone calls from collectors and numismatists on a daily basis these past few weeks. The phone calls are generally very lengthy and so numismatically varied that I find that I am thoroughly enjoying my isolation experience.”

Another collector with a “lengthy numismatic to-do list” is ONA Club Services Chair Steve Woodland, who’s handling the nominations for this year’s ONA Club of the Year Award.

The deadline for nominations was recently extended to May 31.

“I have been contacting dealers and friends by various means – Facebook, texting, emails and even the phone – to see how they are. I’m sending off ‘want lists’ to people and participating in various online auctions and sales, including Trajan’s most recent virtual show via Facebook Groups,” said Woodland.

“Overall, I have avoided all physical social contact. I haven’t been off my property in over a month.” 

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