"It's a great joke played on us by the Lord, or fate, or nature, whatever you prefer. But whoever or whatever played it certainly had a sense of humor!"
"The Treasure of the Sierra Madre"
The treasure of skid row didn't turn out much better than the 1948 classic movie about star-crossed treasure hunters.
The scores of rare silver dollars found around skid row over the last few months looked so weathered and real to beat officers.
But one look by experts Friday found them to be fakes -- and not even good ones.
"These are such bad counterfeits, it may not be correct to call them counterfeits," said Fred Weinberg, a former president of the Professional Numismatists Guild, the coin industry's professional association.
He said the coins appear to be made of pot metal as opposed to silver -- a type of counterfeiting that he says is popular in China.
"No one would pay $20 for one of these," he said. "A little knowledge is dangerous. These coins are a scam, like three-card monte."
LAPD detectives have been trying to sort out the mystery of the coins since Sunday, when Capt. Andrew Smith found two homeless men selling 24 silver dollars from the 18th, 19th and early 20th centuries for $20 each. Other officers said they had found similar coins on three other denizens of skid row.
Though police officials speculated that someone had stolen a rare-coin collection to buy drugs on skid row, experts said Friday that these coins would never pass muster in the world of serious collecting.
"People are selling the coins in the swap meets.... They are fakes, and obviously not silver," said Lionel Pereira of Southern California Coins and Stamps in Downey.
"The easiest way to tell is to put a magnet over these coins," Pereira said. "It will pick them up, and so obviously they aren't silver."
Don Ketterling, another coin expert, said that technically, fake coins are not legal and could be seized by the U.S. Secret Service. He said he saw obvious flaws in some of the coins in photographs published by The Times, including a Washington quarter with an incorrect date.
LAPD officials said they were continuing to investigate the source of the coins even though they agreed that most of the coins probably were fakes.
Smith said he suspects the coins started being used as a form of currency by the homeless or drug dealers.
"People here trade whatever they can in the underground economy. They sometimes don't know the value," Smith said. "Merchandise that ends up being traded here can come from another city or even another state."