Skip to main content

Coin Clinic: Which side is obverse side of coins?

How can I determine which side of a coin is the obverse and which is the reverse?
  • Author:
  • Publish date:
2014 U.S. Coin Digest

U.S. Coin Digest is the most complete and comprehensive color guide to all U.S. Coins. Check it out!

By Richard Giedroyc

How can I determine which side of a coin is the obverse and which is the reverse?
The Standard Catalog of World Coins methodology is to call the obverse the side of a coin that on which a monarch appears or the side that identifies the country that issues it. For U.S. coins, collectors usually choose the date side, but with quarters now being issued without the date on the side with George Washington, they go with the portrait as obverse.
For production purposes, the obverse die is that coinage die that is placed on the top of the piece of metal to be struck into a coin, while the reverse coinage die is in the fixed position. Visualize the way coins were made before modern machinery, in a similar method to how a blacksmith works pounding something on an anvil. In this case the reverse would be that anvil.

Who invented the first machine from which coins could be struck?
The first screw press appears to have been invented in the late 15th century by Italian inventor and architect Donato Bramante. Bramante’s invention was initially used to produce heavy seals or papal bulls as well as medals for the pope. The major advantage of the screw press over hand-striking coins was consistency of quality.

Did the screw press increase production as well as quality of the coins being made?
Actually the screw press was labor intensive and for that reason was less efficient that striking coins by hand. It took two people to turn the screw press, while a third placed and removed the planchet being pressed into a coin. The advantage was the consistent quality of the coins being made.

How did we come to have a 70-point rather than a 100-point grading system for U.S. coins?
During the 1970s the American Numismatic Association drafted a panel of individuals to address the grading problem, which at that time had reached catastrophic proportions. The ultimate goal was to establish the ANA grading service, which has since evolved into ANACS while many other competing services have followed.
A 100-point system was considered, however the panel recommended adopting the “quantitative grading of condition” system already in use for large cents. This system was initiated by Dr. William H. Sheldon, author of Early American Cents first published in 1949. Sheldon’s book was later republished as Penny Whimsy.

Can you explain the “quantitative grading of condition” system introduced by Dr. William H. Sheldon?
Sheldon used the 1794 large cent as his example, following its then-current market value in all grades, assigning grades as high as 70 for a theoretical perfect example.
Using the value of a dollar for a Basal State 1 coin on up Sheldon determined there was a numerical progression of dollar value that followed his 70-point scale. An MS-70 would be worth $70. At the time this was true for his single coin example, but it was never accurate when applied to any other coin. Today, of course, the value of the 1794 large cent has also changed, making this scale obsolete when it is applied to market values for coins. Sheldon’s system has been recognized as a known commodity, even though it was never practical.

E-mail inquiries only. Do not send letters in the mail. Send to Because of space limitations, we are unable to publish all questions.

More Coin Collecting Resources:

• Strike it rich with this U.S. coins value pack.

• Get the 2012 Coin of the Year – limited quantities remain!

• Build an impressive collection with Coin Collecting 101.

• IT’S HERE! Order the 2014 North American Coins & Prices.