Obverse and reverse
Obverse and its opposite, reverse, refer to the two flat faces of coins and some other two-sided objects, including paper money, flags, seals, medals, drawings, old master prints and other works of art, and printed fabrics. In this usage, obverse means the front face of the object and reverse means the back face. The obverse of a coin is commonly called heads, because it often depicts the head of a prominent person, and the reverse tails.
Which is which?
Generally, if in doubt, the side of a coin with the larger-scale image will be called the obverse (especially if the image is a single head) and, if that does not serve to distinguish them, the side that is more typical of a wide range of coins from that location will be called the obverse. A convention now exists typically to display the obverse to the left and the reverse to the right in photographs.
Following this principle, in the most famous of Ancient Greek coins, the tetradrachm of Athens, the obverse is the head of Athena and the reverse is her owl. Similar versions of these two images, both symbols of the state, were used on the Athenian coins for more than two centuries.
In the many republics of Ancient Greece, such as Athens or Corinth, one side of their coins would have a symbol of the state, usually their patron goddess or her symbol, which remained constant through all of the coins minted by that state, which is regarded as the obverse of those coins. The opposite side may have varied from time to time. In Ancient Greek monarchical coinage, the situation continued whereby a larger image of a deity, is called the obverse, but a smaller image of a monarch appears on the other side which is called the reverse.
In a Western monarchy, it has been customary, following the tradition of the Hellenistic monarchs and then the Roman emperors, for the currency to bear the head of the monarch on one side, which is almost always regarded as the obverse. This change happened in the coinage of Alexander the Great, which continued to be minted long after his death. After his conquest of ancient Egypt, he allowed himself to be depicted on the obverse of coins as a god-king, at least partly because he thought this would help secure the allegiance of the Egyptians, who had regarded their previous monarchs, the pharaohs, as divine. The various Hellenistic rulers who were his successors followed his tradition and kept their images on the obverse of coins.
A movement back to the earlier tradition of a deity being placed on the obverse occurred in Byzantine coinage, where a head of Christ became the obverse and a head or portrait (half or full-length) of the emperor became considered the reverse. The introduction of this style in the gold coins of Justinian II from the year 695 provoked the Islamic Caliph, Abd al-Malik, who previously had copied Byzantine designs, replacing Christian symbols with Islamic equivalents, finally to develop a distinctive Islamic style, with just lettering on both sides of their coins. This script alone style then was used on nearly all Islamic coinage until the modern period. The type of Justinian II was revived after the end of Iconoclasm, and with variations remained the norm until the end of the Empire. Without images, therefore, it is not always easy to tell which side will be regarded as the obverse without some knowledge.
After 695, Islamic coins avoided all images of persons and usually, contained script alone. The side expressing the Six Kalimas (the Islamic profession of faith) is usually defined as the obverse.
In illustrations showing both sides of a coin, the obverse usually is on the left of (or occasionally above) the reverse, but not invariably.
The form of currency follows its function, which is to serve as a readily accepted medium of exchange of value. Normally, this function rests on a state as guarantor of the value: either as trustworthy guarantor of the kind and amount of metal in a coin, or as powerful guarantor of the continuing acceptance of token coins.
Traditionally, most states have been monarchies where the person of the monarch and the state were equivalent for most purposes. For this reason, the obverse side of a modern piece of currency is the one that evokes that reaction by invoking the strength of the state, and that side almost always depicts a symbol of the state, whether it be the monarch or otherwise.
If not provided for on the obverse, the reverse side usually contains information relating to a coin's role as medium of exchange (such as the value of the coin). Additional space typically reflects the issuing country's culture or government, or evokes some aspect of the state's territory.
Coins of the European Union
Regarding the euro, some confusion regarding the obverse and reverse of the euro coins exists. Officially, as agreed by the informal Economic and Finance Ministers Council of Verona in April 1996, and despite the fact that a number of countries have a different design for each coin, the distinctive national side for the circulation coins is the obverse and the common European side is the reverse. This rule does not apply to the collector coins as they don't have a common side.
A number of the designs used for obverse national sides of euro coins were taken from the reverse of the old pre-euro coins of some individual countries. Several countries (e.g. Spain, Belgium) continue to use portraits of the reigning monarch and the Republic of Ireland continues to use the State Arms, as on its earlier issues.
Coins of Japan
In Japan, from 1897 to the end of World War II, although not formally stated, the following conventions existed:
- the Chrysanthemum Crest appeared on all coins,
- the crest side was regarded informally as the obverse (a normal situation, since the throne depicted represented the imperial family), and
- the year appeared on the other (reverse) side.
The Chrysanthemum Crest no longer appeared after the war, at least equally informally, so
- the year took over the role of defining the reverse, and
- the obverse therefore has been regarded as the side opposite the date.
Coins of the United Kingdom
By tradition, each British monarch faces in the opposite direction of his or her predecessor. Hence, George VI faced left and the present Queen faces right. The only break in this tradition almost occurred in 1936 when Edward VIII, believing his left side to be superior to his right, insisted on his image facing left, as his father's image had. No official legislation prevented his wishes being granted, so left-facing obverses were prepared for minting. Very few examples were struck before he abdicated later that year, but none bearing this portrait ever were issued officially. When George VI acceded to the throne, his image was placed to face left, implying that, had any coins been minted with Edward's portrait the obverses would have depicted Edward facing right and maintained the tradition.
Current UK coinage features the following abbreviated inscription: D(ei) G(ratia) REG(ina) F(idei) D(efensatrix) (By the Grace of God, Queen Defender of the Faith). Earlier issues included BRITT OMN (of all the Britons) and before 1949 IND IMP (Emperor of India).
Coins of the United States
Some modern states specify, by law or published policy, what appears (and sometimes what will appear) on the obverse and reverse of their currency. (The specifications mentioned here imply the use of all upper-case letters, although they appear here in upper and lower case letters for the legibility of the article.)
The United States government long adhered to including all of the following:
- "United States of America"
- "E Pluribus Unum"
- Words (not digits) expressing the name or assigned value of the item, e.g., "Quarter Dollar", "One Dime", "Five Cents"
The ten-year series of Statehood Quarters, whose issue began in 1999, however, was seen as calling for more space and more flexibility in the design of the reverse. A law specific to this series and the corresponding time period permits the following:
- as before:
- "In God We Trust"
- instead of on the reverse:
- "United States of America"
- The words expressing assigned value of the coin, "Quarter Dollar"
- as before:
- as before:
- instead of on the obverse:
- The four digits of the year of issue
- Commission Recommendation of 29 September 2003 on a common practice for changes to the design of national obverse sides of euro circulation coins (PDF), OJ L 264, 2003-10-15, pp. 38-39; EU doc. nr. C(2003) 3388.
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