1 the more conspicuous of two alternatives or cases or sides; "the obverse of this issue"
2 the side of a coin or medal bearing the principal stamp or design [ant: reverse]
- See Obversion for the use of "obverse" in logic.
Which is which?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. However in Ancient Greek monarchical coinage the situation is often reversed, and a larger image, often of a god or goddess, is called the obverse, whilst a smaller image of a king is called the reverse. In the many republics, such as Athens or Corinth, one side would have a symbol of the state, sometimes a goddess, which remained constant through all the coins of that state, and is regarded as the obverse.
The change happened in the coinage of Alexander the Great, which continued to be minted long after his death. After his conquest of Egypt he allowed himself to be depicted on the obverse 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 Hellenisic rulers who were his successors kept their busts on the obverse. Generally, if in doubt, the side with the larger scale image will be called the obverse (especially if 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. Following this principle, in the most famous of 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 these coins for over two centuries.
It is therefore not always easy to tell which side will be regarded as the obverse without some knowledge. Islamic coins after 695 avoided all images of persons, and usually just contained script; in general the side with the larger script is called the obverse. In illustrations showing both sides of a coin, the obverse is usually on the left of or above the reverse, but not invariably.
Modern coinsThe 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 for most purposes equivalent. 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 the monarch or otherwise.
Coins and banknotes (bills, in American and Canadian usage) have two sides, and the secondary side (the reverse) is seldom wasted; various pieces of information directly relating to its role as medium of exchange can occur there (if not provided for on the obverse), and additional space is typically used to reflect the country's culture or government, evoking some treasured aspect of the state's territory, its philosophy of governing, or its people's culture. In any case, this secondary side is usually less focused, and probably always less central, than the obverse, to the facilitation of the acceptance of the currency.
Coins of the European UnionRegarding the euro, some confusion regarding the obverse and reverse of the euro coins exists. Officially, the common side is the reverse and the national side is the obverse; it's a popular and common misconception, however, that the common side is the obverse. A number of the designs used for national sides (the obverse of euro coins) were used on the reverse of the old pre-euro coins of the individual countries.
Coins of JapanIn Japan, from 1897 to the end of World War II, though not formally stated:
- the Chrysanthemum Crest appeared on all coins,
- its side was informally regarded as the obverse (a normal situation, since this crest represented the imperial family), and
- the year appeared on the other (reverse) side.
The Chrysanthemum no longer appeared after the war, so (at least equally informally),
- the year took over the role of defining the reverse, and
- the obverse has therefore been regarded as the side opposite the date.
Coins of the United KingdomFollowing ancient tradition, the obverse of coins of the United Kingdom (and predecessor kingdoms going back to the middle ages) almost always feature the head of the monarch.
By tradition, each British monarch faces in the opposite direction to his or her predecessor. Hence George VI faced left, and the present Queen faces right. The only break in this tradition came in 1936 when Edward VIII, believing his left side to be superior to his right, insisted on facing left, like his father had done. No official legislation prevented his wishes being granted, so left-facing obverses were prepared for minting. Very few examples were actually struck before he abdicated later that year, and none bearing this portrait were ever officially issued. When George VI acceded to the throne, he also faced left, so as to imply that had any coins been minted with Edward's portrait, the obverses would have depicted him facing right.
Coins of the United StatesSome 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, though they appear here in mixed case for the sake of readability of the article.)
The United States government long adhered to including all of the following:
However, the ten-year series of Statehood Quarters, whose issue began in 1999, 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:
obverse in Belarusian (Tarashkevitsa): Авэрс
obverse in Czech: Avers
obverse in German: Avers (Numismatik)
obverse in Italian: Dritto
obverse in Georgian: ავერსი და რევერსი
obverse in Lithuanian: Aversas
obverse in Dutch: Voorzijde
obverse in Polish: Awers i rewers
obverse in Russian: Аверс
obverse in Swedish: Åtsida
obverse in Ukrainian: Аверс
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