Massive exhibit combines three diverse interests

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 notaphily and philately.

With stunning effect, 120 countries are represented by a complete collection of 150 uncirculated banknotes issued by the Franklin Mint in stamped philatelic covers (also known as 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 Powers, a collector and exhibitor from 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, 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.

Powers’ lepidopterology collection includes the Guinness World Record-holder for the world’s largest moth, an owlet moth he acquired from a fellow collector in the early 1960s. The moth – a female with a wingspan of 308 millimetres – was found in Brazil in 1934.

Powers’ collection also includes a gynandromorph, a bird-winged butterfly from New Guinea born with both a male and female wing.

“I’ve had two other exhibits – ‘Incredible World of Bugs’ and ‘Flying Jewels’ – on the road for 45 years, entertaining and educating people about bugs and butterflies,” said Powers, who hopes to earn another world record, this for organizing the longest-running bug and butterfly exhibition with his latest display.

“It’s a passion, and when I want something, I find it,” he said, of his desire to fully complete collections, a task he recently completed at the Ontario Numismatic Association Convention held this April in Kitchener, Ont., where his latest exhibit was unveiled in full for the first time.

“People really enjoyed it, and that really made my day,” said Powers, of the first showing. “It was worth working on it for 30 years to get that response from people.”

THE FINAL NOTE

Powers’ last hole to fill in the 150-piece “Banknotes of All Nations” set was a note issued on behalf of the West African nation of Togo. Because his end goal is always to complete a collection, he took it as a challenge when – following a presentation at a local coin club – another collector told him he would “never find a note from Togo.”

“In two weeks, I found one from 1922, when Togo was ruled by the Germans,” he said, adding he found a French issue “a couple days later” with the help of fellow collector and teacher Chris Boyer, of Waterloo, Ont. “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. As he was building the collection, Powers began adding supplementary material, including United Nations stamps depicting the flags of the countries explored in his exhibit.

“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 coin and stamp 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 also uses his hobby as a teaching tool.

“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.”

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