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18 Mar 2018

With the future of 1p and 2p coins under scrutiny, is your small change worth a fortune?

Some copper coins are worth a pretty penny

The government has ruled out scrapping 1p and 2p coins, despite launching a consultation into the use of cash. And if you're among the 60% of people who immediately save, lose or even throw out pennies you receive, think again - these small coins can be worth more than you think.

Launched on Tuesday, the government's consultation will consider the mix of denominations in circulation, with a particular focus on whether pennies and £50 notes are still being used effectively by the public.

Which? looks at the debate over pennies and £50 notes, and highlights the rarest and most valuable among these denominations.

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Could 1p and 2p coins be scrapped?

During the Spring Statement, the Chancellor of the Exchequer announced a consultation into the use of cash and digital payments in the UK market, including whether little-used denominations - including pennies and £50 notes - are meeting the public's needs.

Six in 10 penny coins are used once in a transaction before 'leaving the cash cycle' - meaning they're saved or lost, according to the consultation paper. In 8% of cases, the coins are simply thrown in the bin. To compensate, the Royal Mint produces around 500m new pennies each year.

Yet charities warn that smaller organisations rely on pennies for collection buckets and coin drives, and many pensioners still deal primarily in cash.

Less than 24 hours after the consultation was announced, Downing Street confirmed it had no plans to axe 1p and 2p pieces.

Commons leader Andrea Leadsom said in response to a question: 'I think it's safe to say that the penny has dropped: we've considered change, we know we like change, so we think we will probably keep change and have no change.'

While scrapping the penny is off the table in Britain, other countries around the world have previously taken this step - Australia withdrew its one- and two-cent coins from circulation in 1992, while Canada did so in 2013.

What are the most valuable 1p coins?

Unlike other coin denominations, the design of pennies tends to stay the same over the years, meaning there are fewer sought-after collector's items.

Even so, one of the most valuable coins ever sold is a 1p - the 1933 'old penny', which in 2016 sold for £72,000 at auction.

In 1933, the Royal Mint had such a large stockpile of pennies that it wasn't necessary to mint more. Less than 10 pennies were struck with the 1933 date, with the majority going to Royal Mint records or buried under new buildings as part of a tradition.

With such a small mintage, this coin is unlikely to turn up in your spare change.

A more common find is the 1971 'new penny'. These coins are from the first run after decimalisation was introduced, when Britain switched its standard to 100 pennies in the pound.

A 1971 penny could fetch a premium, with one recently selling for £5.99 on eBay. But be wary - while others are listed at up to £75, there is no guarantee that anyone would pay this amount.

You should also be on alert for misleading claims by coin traders, a Which? investigation revealed, with some companies encouraging misconceptions about which coins are considered investments.

Rarest 2p coins

Much like 1ps, the design of 2p coins has been largely the same over the years. Still, it's worth taking a second look at older 2p coins.

From 1982 onwards, coins were stamped with 'two pence' instead of 'new pence'. But a minting error in 1983 meant some coins were accidentally stamped with the old-style wording - creating an 'error' or 'mule' coin.

If you find a 1983 2p stamped with 'new pence', it could be worth a hefty premium.

A set of uncirculated 1983 coins containing the mule 2p recently sold on eBay for £1,370.

But it's worth keeping in mind that coins lose value once they've been in circulation. A circulated 1983 1p error coin recently sold for £25 - significantly less than the coins in 'mint condition', though still a tidy profit on its face value.

Rare 50p coins

While pennies are in the headlines at the moment, the most collectible coins tend to be 50ps.

Coin enthusiasts know to keep an eye out for the Kew Gardens 50p.With just 210,000 in circulation, each of these can sell for over £150.

Another highly sought-after release is the Sir Isaac Newton 50p, but you won't find it in your spare change. This coin is only available from the Royal Mint Experience inLlantrisant, Wales - and you'll need to strike it yourself.

Currently these coins are selling for around £40 on eBay.

The Royal Mint has also released a series of Beatrix Potter 50p coins, that have proven popular among collectors and Peter Rabbit fans.

Will £50 notes be withdrawn?

The future of £50 notes is currently uncertain.

The consultation identified the fifty as a currency that's rarely used in transactions, and associated by the public with money laundering and tax evasion. Asked about the future of a £50 note, a Downing Street spokesperson said considerations were still underway.

In recent years, £5 and £10 notes have been replaced with polymer designs - and an updated £20 note is due in 2020. By contrast, there are no plans underway to update the £50 note, with the Bank of England saying it will make a decision 'in due course'.

Rare £50 notes

For collectors, the value of banknotes often comes down to the serial number.

Many collectors seek out the first notes in a series - indicated by a serial number starting with AA01.

The lower the number, the higher the value of the note. Most notes with serial numbers below 30 are presented to dignitaries, and any number lower than 200 is likely to be in high demand.

In 2012, auction house Spink sold a £50 note with the serial numberAA01 000200 for £220.

Image courtesy of Spink

Other collectors are willing to pay a premium for the first or last note series signed by a chief cashier. Alternatively, certain sequences of numbers - for example 12345 - can also attract collector interest.