It's not always obvious. Which side are you on?
For most U.S. coins, it's fairly easy to determine which side of the coin is the obverse. For others though, this designation isn't quite so obvious. This is particularly true for the entire U.S./Philippine series minted from 1903 through 1945. Which is the obverse, the date side or the figure side? This has long been a hot topic of discussion in this niche collecting community.
A very interesting paper on this topic was presented by Kenneth Seymore at the Philippine Collectors Forum (PCF) in 2003. Unfortunately, I was unable to attend, but I was lucky enough to obtain a printed copy. Mr. Seymore did an excellent job of surveying all of the major grading services, and catalogs, as well as a review of the authorizing US coinage laws. He even analyzed coins that were struck with a partial collar to determine which side of the coin had been struck by the hammer die, assuming that to be the obverse. His conclusion, based on majority opinion and which side the mint chose to strike with the hammer die was that the denomination/figure side of the coin should be considered the obverse.
Since I'm writing this journal post, you probably suspect that I disagree with this conclusion. If you've looked at any of my U.S./Philippine registry sets, you already know I disagree. I don't think I'm just being a contrarian as I do have some justification for my opinion. It seems to me that the authoritative source for resolving this debate should be the government documents that authorized the production of these coins.
The Philippine Coinage act of 1902, states in "Sec. 82. That the subsidiary and minor coinage hereinbefore authorized shall bear devices and inscriptions to be prescribed by the government of the Philippine Islands and such devices and inscriptions shall express the sovereignty of the United States, that it is a coin of the Islands, the denomination of the coin, and the year of the coinage." Unfortunately, this is not very satisfying. It identifies four elements, two of which are on one side of the coin and two on the other, but it fails to designate which side is the obverse, so we need to dig a bit deeper.
We need to go all the way back to the Coinage Act of 1873 to find the additional controlling legislation. This act states in "Sec. 19. That upon the coins of the United States there shall be the following devices and legends: Upon one side there shall be an impression emblematic of liberty, with an inscription of the word 'Liberty' and the year of the coinage, and upon the reverse shall be the figure or representation of an eagle, with the inscriptions 'United States of America' and 'E Pluribus Unum,' and a designation of the value of the coin." This too is not as definitive as I'd like, but it may give us a bit more to go on since it does explicitly state which elements are on the reverse and hence implies which are on the obverse. Of the items listed in this act that are also listed in the act of 1902, it states that the denomination shall be on the reverse, and that the date shall be on the obverse. Unfortunately, it also states that the inscription "United States of America" and the eagle shall also be on the reverse. So, what to do now?
If we look at the other U.S. coins stuck in 1903, most, but not all conform to the letter of the law. All do however have the date on the obverse and the denomination on the reverse. Another aspect to note is that one side of all of the US/Philippine coins could be considered the U.S. side and the other the Philippine side. Considering that the Philippines had just become a territory of the United States, I would suspect that the U.S. side of the coin would have been considered the dominant side of the coin at the time. All of these things taken together lead me to believe that the U.S./date side of the coin should be designated the obverse.
Although not fully explained in his 6th (and possibly final) edition of "U.S./ Philippine Coins" published in 2007, Lyman Allen has also concluded that the date side of the coin is the obverse. This is the primary reference book for this series, and NGC & PCGS use Allen numbers to identify varieties, so I have chosen to use this designation as well.
After all that, why should anyone care? Is this just the pedantic ramblings of someone who is deeply interested in a collection of obscure U.S. coins or does it actually have some relevance in the real world? The answer is probably a bit of both.
In grading, the major services generally weight one side of the coin more heavily when determining a final grade. The obverse typically contributes 60% of the final grade and the reverse only 40%. The major grading services have chosen the figure/denomination side as the obverse, and one needs to keep that in mind when submitting. I would prefer a 50/50 weighting on coins where there is some ambiguity, but it's much too late to suggest that change now.
Lastly, not having a universally agreed upon obverse & reverse causes confusion when identifying some varieties. For example, the 1945D Doubled Die #2, also known as Allen-9.05b. NGC designates this as a Doubled Die Reverse (DDR), whereas Allen would refer to it as a Doubled Die Obverse (DDO). The two coins pictured below were submitted several years apart, and show how the NGC label for the same coin has evolved over time. NGC still refers to these coins as DDR, but now also include the Allen number to alleviate confusion.
Thanks for reading. I'd be glad to hear you comments on the subject.