What is the Obverse of a Coin?

The obverse and reverse of a United States Kennedy half-dollar.
The obverse (left) and reverse (right) of a United States Kennedy half-dollar. Image Courtesy of: Heritage Auction Galleries, www.ha.com

Definition of Obverse

The obverse of a coin is the front, main, top, or "heads" side of a coin, usually bearing a portrait. Also, this term is commonly used to refer to the front of two-sided paper money, medallions, flags, seals and drawings. Outside the field of numismatics, This is more commonly called the front. In publishing, "recto"  and "verso" are commonly used to respectively refer to the front and back side of pages. 

Numismatists use a variety of terms to describe coins to other collectors and dealers. It is important to understand these terms as you begin your coin collecting journey. Failure to do so could result in purchasing a coin that is below your expectations.

History of Coin Production

In early times coins were made by taking to harden pieces of metal with incuse designs engraved on them to make the coin. These are known as coin dies. One die was mounted on a large sturdy surface such as a rock or stone, while the other coin die was held by a mint worker. The lower die was known as the anvil die and the die held by the worker was known as the hammer die. The mint worker would then take a piece of metal and place it on the anvil die, put the hammer die on top of it and strike it with a large heavy hammer in order to impart the coin design on the metal.

Since the anvil die imparted the design on the back of the coin, this was known as the reverse side of the coin. The top of the coin that was produced by the hammer die is known as the obverse of the coin. Over time machines were invented to aid in the production of coins. Early coin presses were operated by hand or driven by work animals.

Modern coin presses are now driven by an alternate source of energy. Most of them use hydraulic pressure to create the tremendous force use to make coins. Although most coin presses still use a hammer die and an anvil die that are mounted vertically within the press, some modern presses produce up to five coins simultaneously with the coin dies mounted horizontally within the press.

Historically, most coins feature a portrait of a fictional character (such as a God or deity), a reigning monarch (such as a king or queen), a symbolic portrait (such as Lady Liberty) or a person being immortalized on a coin. Initially, the United States used the symbolic portrait of Lady Liberty on all of our coins.  In 1892 the portrait of Queen Isabella and Christopher Columbus were featured on United States coins to commemorate the 400th anniversary of Christopher Columbus discovering America. In 1909 Pres. Abraham Lincoln was featured on the one cent coin. His portrait still continues to be the main element on all U.S. pennies.

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Example Usage:

The obverse of the Buffalo Nickel depicts a Native American, and the reverse bears a buffalo.

Edited by: James Bucki