Some UK coins – those of a 1p, 2p, 5p and 10p denomination minted after certain dates – are magnetic because of the metal that they are made from. This is due to the changing value of certain metals.
One of the great things about coin collecting as a hobby is the interesting and unusual information you get to learn. Coins have evolved across the years in terms of how they are made, and what materials are used to make them.
Nowadays, for example, all coins that are issued for use in the UK are issued by the Royal Mint, and it is only these coins that can be legally spent.
You may be aware, for instance, that some UK coins are magnetic. These are the four lower-valued coins in UK circulation – 1p, 2p, 5p and 10p – but not all of them!
This is where it gets confusing, as we need to look at the recent history of the materials used in the coins to see why this should be.
Before we go into any detail, the reason later coins – we’ll come to the dates soon – are magnetic is because a decision was taken to change the base metals used to make the coins. This was done largely down to the changing value of metals over time.
In itself, the changing value of base metals is an interesting subject, so let’s have a look at that so we gain further insight into why the Royal Mint made the decision to change.
The Changing Value of Base Metals
Did you know that the value of gold – the most desirable precious metal – can be traced back as far as 30BC? This is because gold has, from a very early age, been a tradeable commodity.
That first value was in the days of the Roman empire, when Emperor Augustus began his rule. He decreed that one pound of gold could be used to make 45 coins, this setting the first recorded trading price for the metal.
If you thought that inflation was a modern thing, think again: by 306AD, the value of gold had reduced to 70 coins to the pound, thus being done to help Constantine the Great keep his seat, and to finance the army.
So, even a thousand years ago, people were trading gold and its value changed regularly.
In Great Britain, gold prices were first set in 1257, when it was declared that one ounce of gold would cost 0.89 of a pound. In a further example of inflation, by 1717 – almost 500 years later – gold was priced at £4.25 per ounce.
Before we move on, an interesting aside: an ounce of gold is not an ounce as we would measure, say, flour when making bread.
Instead, it is a measure that is all but unique to the precious metals trade, known as a ‘Troy Ounce’. Derived from the Roman system of money, a Troy Ounce is equivalent to 31.1 grams, whereas a standard ounce is approximately 25.3 grams.
So, why are we talking about gold when the coins we are interested in are not gold?
We have used gold as an example to show how the price of metals can vary, and now we need to look at that in relation to the base metals, among which are copper, zinc, nickel and lead.
These also fluctuate in price, and this is largely down to supply and demand. However, as we are in what many people call the ‘Information Age’ it is no surprise that there is constant research and observation of metal prices.
This allows for the industry to stay on a more level footing than ever before, and for traders to predict when prices may change. Put simply, there are many factors that can affect the price of raw metals, and the market is the determining factor.
What prompted the Royal Mint to change the make-up of its coinage? Let’s have a closer look!
The ‘Coppers’ Change from Bronze to Copper-Plated Steel
Up until 1992, all of the ‘copper’ coins in the UK – that’s the 1p and 2p – were made from bronze. Now, it is worth remembering that bronze is not in itself a base metal: it is an alloy that consists of copper and a mixture of other metals. In the UK this was an amalgam of copper, tin and zinc.
In response to a rapidly rising cost of base metals – most notably copper – the Royal Mint took the decision to change the composition of 1p and 2p coins to a mixture of copper-plated steel, which included an iron element in the core.
The coating uses far less copper than a bronze composition, and yet the coins look very much the same. It is the iron in the steel which, of course, makes the coins magnetic.
For collectors, however, there is an interesting interlude here. In 1998, and for a few months only, the Royal Mint issued 2p coins in the old bronze composition.
The reason given is described as ‘operational’ and some authority sources say it was because they had some old-style blanks left over and opted to put them to use. So, if you have a 1998 2p, put a magnet to it – if it is not magnetic, it’s one of the rarer issues!
The Silver Coins Lose Their Copper
The 5p and 10p coin had been made from Cupro-Nickel since their introduction. We are talking about the new, smaller 10p that was introduced in 1992, and the small five-pence piece that we first saw in 1990, and which immediately became unpopular with the public thanks to its very small size.
Cupro-Nickel is copper that is mixed with nickel and sometimes other elements, and by the early 1990’s the price of copper was – as we have read above – rising rapidly. This led to the Royal Mint changing the composition of the 5p and 10p coin to a more affordable Nickel-plated steel from 2012 onwards. So, once again, the iron in the core is magnetic.
These may be the lowest-value coins in the UK, but they are also some of the more interesting, so while we’re here let’s look at some interesting facts about these four coins.
Some Fun Facts
- 5p and 10p coins gained 11% in thickness with the change in composition
- You can magnetize each of these coins using a strong magnet, and attach them together!
- 5 billion 1p coins are in circulation
- 5 billion 2p coins are in circulation
- 4 billion 5p coins are in circulation
- 5 billion 10p coins are in circulation
Values of Copper and Silver
Finally, if you are a collector, you’ll want to know if there are any valuable coins of these types. There are some rare editions of each one, and the most interesting are as follows:
Rare 1p Coins: there are two collectible 1p coins that you should look out for. The first is one from the original year of issue, 1971. This will have the words ‘New Penny’ on the back, and the familiar Arthur Machin portrait of the queen.
Despite more than 1.5 billion being issued they are now quite rare, and a good one sold recently on E-bay for £50. Also, if you have a 1992 penny, check it with a magnet: this is the year they switched the composition, but before the change, 78,000 bronze 1p coins were minted, making it one of the rarest of all general issue UK coins.
Rare 2p Coins: from 1982 onwards, the words ‘New Pence’ on the back of a 2p coin were replaced with ‘Two Pence’. A very small amount of 2p coins were accidentally struck in 1983 with the old wording. These were mainly put into collectors sets, but some made it into circulation and the numbers are unknown.
Rare 5p Coins: 1993 5p coins are among the most collectible as fewer were minted that year than in any other year of circulation. They fetch prices in the region of £10 but are more interesting from a rarity point of view. Also, in 2008, the Royal Mint issued a run of 5p coins that had the reverse ‘upside down’ when compared to the front, and these are said to have fetched as much as £50.
Rare 10p Coins: the 10p coins offers perhaps the most interest to the collector of modern UK coins, and especially the ‘Alphabet’ series issued in 2018. This was a series of 26 different designs, each with a letter of the alphabet and a ‘Best of British’ illustration, and there are some ‘error coins’ – those that are incorrect – among them.
Here’s what to look for:
- Y – should have a clear image of a Yeoman of the Guard, yet due to a minting error, some in circulation have a very faint such image, and these have been known to sell for around £17.
- B – this coin celebrates the fictional spy James Bond, and is popular not for an error but for the subject matter. This one can net you £6 if you find a collector who wants it.
- M – celebrating the Mackintosh coat, this is one of the rarer of the Alphabet collection, and may be worth up £5.
- K – this coin features King Arthur, of Knights of the Round Table legend fame, and is said to be the second-rarest of all the 10p coins with a value of around £4.
- J – featuring a Jubilee royal carriage, the J coin is worth around the same as the K version, although is nowhere near as rare.
- D – the D coin features a Double-Decker Bus, and while not at all rare, has been known to fetch over £3.
It’s likely that the people who paid these prices did so to complete their collection of 26 ‘Alphabet’ 10p pieces, so why not start collecting by checking your change and doing the same!
Coin collecting is a hobby that can be enjoyed by all ages, and with so many special editions and also error coins in circulation – as well as many other collectable editions – you can start a collection at very little cost, and you’ll soon be hooked!
Check your change right now, you never know what you might have in your pocket.