When Stanley Heflin discovered a $10,000 gold certificate between pages of a tattered book, all he could think about was flying off to Hollywood.

But since the Secret Service confiscated the certificate -- stamped "payable in gold" and dated May 8, 1917 -- Heflin's thoughts have turned from spending the windfall to retrieving it.

A Colonial Beach, Va., resident who has lived on Social Security since he was injured after falling off a ladder when he was 17 years old, Heflin, 30, supplements his $360 monthly checks by working odd jobs. Few were odder, it turned out, than the one he took seven years ago.

"We were supposed to take everything in the attic to the dump," said Heflin, recalling his task of cleaning out a summer cottage. "I saw a bunch of books laying there and I started looking through them. I said to myself, 'There might be something of value in there.' "

In a green book with yellowed pages, Heflin found the certificate, backed by $10,000 in gold when it was issued by the Treasury Department in 1917. But instead of getting rich, Heflin ended up getting a lawyer.

"I put it in my father's safe," he said of the certificate. "I figured it would get even more valuable."

In August, he decided to cash it in. That is when his difficulties began.

On the advice of his banker, Heflin drove to the Treasury Department from his riverside home town 75 miles south of Washington. He was referred to Secret Service agent Norman Allen.

Allen, who among other things works with counterfeit and out-of-issue currency, said in an interview last week, "I know {Heflin} is of the opinion that I gypped him . . . , {but} I had to take it, because it's considered an official record . . . . It has no value."

Rose Pianalto, a senior analyst with the Federal Reserve system, disagrees. Gold certificates were taken out of circulation in 1934 and are no longer worth face value, she said, but they do have historic value. She recommends that anyone holding one sell it to a coin and currency collector.

Peter Boyer, owner of Coins of the Realm, a Rockville shop that deals in stamps, coins and paper money, said Heflin's certificate probably would have fetched from "$200 to $650, depending on its condition."

And Nelson Whitman, owner of the Capitol Coin & Stamp Co. in the District, said, "It was worth a few hundred dollars. I'd buy it and resell it."

Although Whitman said he is certain there are no restrictions on trading gold certificates for collectors' purposes, Boyer is not so sure.

"Every so often I hear about the Secret Service confiscating them, but sometimes they look right at them and do nothing," Boyer said. At coin shows, which Secret Service agents sometimes attend, he said, "If they see them, they turn their head."

Allen said he could not turn his head because it states in the Secret Service manual that gold certificates "are considered to be retired government records. They are not bearer instruments and they are seizable as contraband."

Employes of several departments within the Treasury who were contacted last week said they had no idea what rules and policies govern gold certificates, and they referred calls to the Secret Service.

"It's not a question we get asked every day or every decade," Allen said, explaining the confusion.

"I presume something that old must have value," he said. "I don't know who's correct. I can only do what I am told -- {regard it} as an official government record."

Allen and Pianalto said that most, if not all, outstanding gold certificates were inadvertently disseminated on Dec. 13, 1935, during an early morning fire at the Old Post Office Building (then called the new Post Office Building) at Pennsylvania Avenue and 12th Street NW. Thousands of gold certificates and other papers that had been fueling the fire were thrown out the building's windows by firefighters.

"A number of passers-by picked them up," Allen said, "and from time to time they surface."

The speculation is that the certificate Heflin found was picked up by someone outside the Post Office Building during the fire. Vincent Mullin, the real estate broker who hired Heflin to clean out the attic seven years ago, said that before World War II, Colonial Beach was a favorite spot for Washingtonians who wanted a second home on the Potomac River.

Several gold certificates surfaced around the country in 1975, prompting the Treasury Department to issue a statement that began: "The effects of a fire in downtown Washington nearly 40 years ago are still being felt at the U.S. Treasury Department and making some persons unhappy."

The statement went on to say that a man had purchased one of the "worthless" certificates for $9,009, then sold it to an Ohio bank teller for $10,000. To clear up the confusion, the Treasury Department asked that all outstanding certificates be returned to the "nearest office of the U.S. Secret Service."

Heflin said that if he cannot get the $10,000 for the certificate he found, "I at least want it {the certificate} returned to me."

Ruth King, a Manassas attorney representing Heflin, would not comment on the case. "All I'm willing to say at this point is that I'm looking into the law" on the matter.

Meanwhile, Heflin said he is postponing his Hollywood tour, but he continues to poke around. On Labor Day, while working in the Colonial Beach Thrift Shop, he looked into "an old brown purse" because, he said, "I thought there might be something valuable in there. I don't know, I just get these hunches."

Inside, Heflin found eight $50 bills and five $20 bills. To date, he said, there have been no indications that the bills were anywhere near the 1935 Post Office building fire.