What is it with 50p coins? They started out bearing a simple and dignified depiction of Britannia. And now they're emblazoned with whatever garish illustration the Royal Mint wants to chuck at us next. Any anniversary or national event is up for grabs, so it seems.
It's all the European Union's fault. The first special 50ps were minted in 1973 to celebrate our entry into the EEC, after which there was a two-decade gap until the next. But after that, the novelty 50p coins have come thick and fast. As follows:
1994: 50th Anniversary of the D-Day Landings (old chunky size, no longer legal tender) 1998: United Kingdom's Presidency of the European Union 1998: 50th Anniversary of the National Health Service 2000: 150th Anniversary of the Public Libraries Act 2003: 100th Anniversary of the Women's Social and Political Union 2004: 50th Anniversary of the first four-minute mile by Roger Bannister 2005: 250th Anniversary of Samuel Johnson's Dictionary of the English Language 2006: 150th Anniversary of the institution of the Victoria Cross 2007: Centenary of the Foundation of the Scouting Movement 2009: 250th anniversary of the foundation of the Royal Botanic Gardens 2010: Celebrating 100 Years of Girlguiding UK
I don't dispute that there are some jolly worthwhile institutions in that list. But a very subjective hand appears to be at work in deciding which events are worthy of immortalisation and which will be overlooked. Worthy though the 62-year-old NHS is, for example, its 50th birthday now seems barely relevant. Anniversaries are fleeting events of minor long-term relevance - far better for the nation's coinage to celebrate actual events taking place now.
Which is where the next round of special 50p coins comes in. They're to celebrate the 2012 Olympics, and they'll be arriving in your pocket from next month onwards. Not just one design either but twenty-nine, featuring all the different Olympic and Paralympic sports. Rowing, basketball and triathlon all appear in the first batch, as eventually will football, wheelchair tennis and boccia. In one burst this new sporting range will outnumber all the previous commemorative 50p designs by a factor of two to one. You'd better like them, because they're going to be around for a long time.
Obviously a lot of people are going to want to collect the full set, but (like collecting Panini stickers) that's going to be a lot harder than it sounds. Finding one 2012 coin might be easy, but finding the last one to complete the set of 29 will be much much harder. In particular there are only going to be 87 million Olympic 50p coins in circulation. That may sound a lot but it's only 3 million of each design (or, in other words, only enough for everyone in Wales).
So if you genuinely want one of each (and the Royal Mint sincerely hopes you do) you're going to have to buy them. Eight designs are up for grabs now, and more will be released up until June next year. Best of all, from the Mint's point of view, is the price. You might expect a 50p coin to cost 50p, but you'd be wrong. The actual price tag is £2.99, which is a 500% mark-up on the face value of each coin should it randomly turn up in your pocket. Buy all 29 and you'll end up paying over £86 for a set of coinage officially worth just £14.50.
I don't know who's actually making the profit here, whether it's London 2012 or the Royal Mint. But there's surely an excellent further opportunity to raise even more money to fund the Games. Why stop with piddly little coins when there are lovely crisp banknotes to exploit? I for one would love to see a set of £5 notes in which the Her Majesty the Queen is seen taking part in each of the 29 Olympic and Paralympic sports. Elizabeth swimming, Elizabeth boxing, even Elizabeth weightlifting - the Mint could charge at least £10 for these and they'd sell.
Or, to really rake in the profits, how about a commemorative series of Olympic £20 notes featuring photos of each of this year's X Factor contestants? Pointless, irrelevant, but utterly collectable by idiots. Britain could pay for the entire Olympic Games in weeks if these exploitative trinkets proved popular. In the meantime, keep an eye out for the less exciting but much shinier Olympic 50p coins. And don't bother starting a special collection, because they'll be appearing in your small change for decades to come.