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Rare Shakespeare portrait will be exhibited at AGO Add to ...

In two weeks, the fans, the critics, the hopers and the doubters can decide for themselves.

The Sanders portrait of Shakespeare, reputed to be the only likeness of the playwright painted during his lifetime, will be on display for public scrutiny at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto beginning June 21.

The exhibit will be titled simply "Shakespeare?" and it will in effect be the first public display of the portrait.

It was displayed in the early 1960s in a department-store gallery, but at that time, it was thought to be a fake, having been dismissed by a critic in 1909 as not old enough.

Testing by the Canadian Conservation Institute in the last six years has found that in fact the portrait was done with paint and on wood that dates from around the early 1600s.

"By engaging in a project like this, the AGO is making an important statement about what museums can be for the public: a lively forum for open-ended debate, discussion and discovery," Matthew Teitelbaum, the gallery's director, said. "We are pleased if we can play a role in the resolution of this fascinating art-historical mystery."

The portrait belongs to a retired Ontario engineer and has been passed down in his family for 400 years. According to family lore, it was painted by John Sanders, a bit actor in Shakespeare's company. A label on the back of the portrait identifies the subject as Shakespeare, painted in 1603 at the age of 39.

The two images of the English playwright that most scholars agree are authentic were both made after his death.

The owner said he was delighted with the gallery's request to exhibit the painting. "I'm sure our painting will create a lot of interest," he said. "This will afford all lovers of Shakespeare an opportunity to come to the gallery and see what I believe, based on what our research has uncovered, to be the true image of Shakespeare at age 39."

The exhibit will include other Elizabethan artifacts and educational materials to illustrate the debate that has raged among Shakespeare scholars and art historians since the existence of the portrait was reported in The Globe a month ago. Both the painting and the paper label on the back will be visible for scrutiny.

The exhibit will run until late September, as part of the museum's main collection (and thus covered by its pay-what-you-can admission policy).

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