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Obverse and reverse, when referring to coins, is more commonly known as ‘heads and tails’. The obverse of a coin is its ‘head’ or front principal surface, and reverse the ‘tails’. In old hammer-struck coins, the head design was embossed on an anvil or pile, and the reverse side embossed in the hammer, which struck the pieces of metal.

A wall relief showing old coins being hammered. .
Detail from an old wall relief, Rostock, showing coins being struck with hammer and anvil or ‘pile’.

The obverse typically shows a national motif or portrait of a monarch/leader, plus the date. This convention dates back to ancient Roman coins, which bore the emperor's head. The reverse usually carries a symbol, the denomination or face value, and the issuing country. However, there are no unalterable rules as to which side is which. Where there is no obvious choice, convention in numismatic or coin collecting circles becomes the deciding factor.

Obverse side of a coin

The term obverse was first used in the 17th century. It is more precise than 'heads' because not all coins feature a portrait, and others have portraits on both sides. For example, the 1904 Lewis and Clark Exposition gold dollar has Meriwether Lewis on one side and William Clark on the other. This is, though, the only US coin to have a portrait on both sides.

Lewis and Clark gold dollar, a coin with two heads, but one obverse. .

Lewis and Clark Exposition gold dollar, obverse on left and reverse right.

Another US coin, the long established American Silver Eagle, has no portrait. Instead this features the Lady Liberty striding towards the rising sun on the obverse – front – side. The reverse shows the United States' Heraldic Eagle and the denomination (face value) of one dollar.

2019 Silver Eagle coin, with no 'head' but a symbol for the obverse.

2019 1oz American Eagle Silver Coin, obverse left and reverse right.

It is even more difficult to establish which is the obverse of Islamic coins, as these rarely feature a portrait. As a general rule, however, the face carrying the inscription, 'There is no god except God, Muhammad is the Apostle of God' can be termed the obverse.

Heads and tails

For obvious reasons the obverse side, with the portrait, is commonly called the 'heads'. The other side is called 'tails', simply because a tail is at the opposite end of an animal from its head.

There have been numerous other commonly used terms; in ancient Rome the term was 'Caesar or ship'. This is because the coins commonly had portraits of the emperor on one side, and the prow of a ship on the other.

'Cross and pile' was the commonly used old English term. This was derived from France, where the 'cross' was the major design element on the obverse of the coin, and the pile was the bottom die or anvil used to strike it.

Many other languages have their own versions of 'heads and tails':

Language Saying Meaning
German Kopf oder Zahl Head and number
Hungarian Fej vagy irás Head and writing
Spanish Cara o cruz Face and cross
French Pile ou face Pile (anvil) and face


Medallion and coin orientation

The obverse and reverse can be arranged in two ways. If both sides are the same way up – that is rotating on a vertical axis – it is called medallion orientation. If each side is a different way up, that is rotating on a horizontal axis, it is called coin orientation.

The two typical orientations for the obverse and reverse of a coin.

The main orientations for the obverse and reverse of a coin.

Since 1887 UK modern coins have generally used medallion orientation. Before then, UK currency was generally coin orientated. There is therefore nothing wrong with an 'upside down' pre-1887 gold coin sovereign.