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He is mischievous, keen-eyed, almost flirtatious. Half twinkle, half smirk, he looks out from his portrait with a tolerant, world-weary air. This is Shakespeare. Perhaps you thought you knew him: bald pate, thin brows, stiff white ruff. You thought wrong.

There are 450 images of the greatest writer in modern history, so many that most people assume they know what Shakespeare looked like. All but three of those pictures are, in the opinion of most experts, fakes (or someone else).

There was, in fact, a whole industry in turning dusty pictures of forgotten nobles into "Shakespeare" portraits in the 1700s. Only the bust on William Shakespeare's grave in Stratford and an engraving for the cover of his first collection of plays -- both done after his death -- are agreed among most authorities to be actual likenesses.

But a retired engineer in a mid-sized Ontario city has a picture, handed down through 12 generations of his family, which may be the only portrait painted in Shakespeare's lifetime.

The painting, which the owner hopes to auction through a major American house, bears the date 1603 in its upper right-hand corner. Experts have said it is from the right era and in the style of the time.

The only dispute that remains is whether the rag paper label, affixed to the back, is right. It reads, in part, "Shakspere" -- as the playwright spelled his own name -- "This Likeness taken 1603, Age at that time 39 ys."

The painting's owner, who does not wish to be identified out of fear for the security of the painting and his family, is in the final stages of authenticating its provenance. He has been told it could be worth thousands, or millions, of dollars.

"And to think we had it hanging for years on the dining-room wall," chuckled the man, who has spent most of his savings trying to have the painting authenticated. "And when I was a kid, it was under my grandmother's bed." Told of the portrait yesterday by The Globe and Mail, Shakespeare scholars and art historians were cautious.

"If this absolutely is a portrait of Shakespeare, then it is very significant," Catharine MacLeod, curator of 16th- and 17th-century portraits at the National Portrait Gallery in London, said.

The painting is about 42 centimetres by 33 centimetres, in tempera (made of pure pigment and egg yolk) on solid oak.

It is slightly worm-eaten at the top but otherwise well preserved, its colours rich, its sheen bright. It shows a Shakespeare with fluffy red hair and blue-green eyes, an appearance that matches descriptions of him in the journals of his contemporaries Christopher Marlowe and Francis Bacon.

The painting is reputed to be by one John Sanders, born in Worcester, England, and christened in March, 1575. The Canadian owner can trace his genealogy back to Mr. Sanders, who appears on the list of players in playbills of the era for various theatrical companies, including that of the King's Players, the same troupe as William Shakespeare. He performed in small roles, and sometimes painted backdrops.

If the inscription on the back of the painting is to be believed, Mr. Sanders got Shakespeare to sit still for a day or two in 1603, or perhaps painted him from memory, having seen him at the theatre each day.

He either labelled the back of the portrait then, leaving a space for the date of death, or went back, 13 years later, when Shakespeare died, and affixed the label then. (The full label reads: Shakspere, Born April 23 1564, Died April 23 1616, Aged 52, This Likeness taken 1603, Age at that time 39 ys)

Shakespeare, at 39, was just hitting his stride. Romeo and Juliet and Hamlet were already major successes. The great tragedies -- Othello, Lear, MacBeth -- were still to come.

By the late 1590s, his name began to be printed on the front of his plays (most Elizabethan playwrights, like all but the best screenwriters today, languished in obscurity, their authorship unacknowledged).

Alexander Leggatt, professor of English at the University of Toronto, said Shakespeare would certainly have been well known in theatrical circles by 1603, and that there would be "nothing inherently surprising" in a member of his company who dabbled in painting choosing to do his portrait.

The painting has been kept in the Sanders family, handed down with care through the generations, identified in wills, "To my eldest son, the portrait reputed to be Shakespeare."

The current owner's grandfather brought it with him in a collection of paintings when he came from England early in this century. It has been exhibited only once, in the early 1960s. The owner's uncle, in whose custody it was then, thought of selling it and had it shown briefly at a gallery. But the painting, then unauthenticated, aroused little interest.

Before the owner set out, as a "retirement project," to try to authenticate it, it had been evaluated only once, by A. M. Spielmann, a leading expert on Shakespeare iconography, in London in 1909.

Mr. Spielmann, working without any scientific instruments, dismissed the portrait as only about 70 years old and as having been altered after the face was painted.

However, the Canadian owner had testing done over seven years, from 1993 to 2000, at the Canadian Conservation Institute in Ottawa, a special operating agency of the Department of Canadian Heritage. The federal government agency does analytical work on art and artifacts for Canadian museums.

Ian Wainwright, manager of the analytical research laboratory at the CCI who oversaw the study of this painting, presented its owner with a final report last year.

In it, he said the "materials and techniques" are consistent with the date of 1603. There is "no evidence that the date was not painted at the same time as the rest of the painting," he wrote. He added there are "no anachronisms" in the paint layers, "no anomalies such as double painting or extensive addition of pictorial elements or extensive alteration of the original paint surface," and it is "highly improbable that the painting is a later forgery or copy."

In an interview, Mr. Wainwright confirmed his staff did the analysis. He called the painting "exciting," but noted that it would "always remain a bit of a mystery" whether the subject of the portrait was actually Shakespeare.

The institute's analysis of the rings in the oak board on which the portrait is painted shows it is from as early as 1597, while the linen label was carbon dated to the same era. Infrared and radiography showed the paint to be from the period, and the whole painting and date to have been done at the same time.

At present, the only authentic likenesses of Shakespeare are considered to be a bust on his tomb in the Church of the Holy Trinity in Stratford, cast after his death, possibly from a death mask, and approved by his wife; and a print done by the artist Martin Droeshout for the frontispiece of the First Folio of his plays, which seems to have been taken from a sketch that has never been found.

The engraving, too, seems to have been approved by Anne Hathaway; it was published in 1623, after his death.

The only serious contender as a portrait of Shakespeare, before this, was a painting called the Chandos. Its painter is unknown, as is its early ownership.

It was once the property of the Duke of Chandos and was presented to the National Portrait Gallery, where it hangs today, in 1856. Curators there firmly defend its authenticity; many other scholars are skeptical, in part because it shows a swarthy, "Italianate" Shakespeare who does not much resemble the bust or the Droeshout.

Stanley Wells, a Shakespeare scholar who heads the Shakespeare Birthplace Trust in Stratford-upon-Avon, said it deserves serious consideration because of its pedigree.

The news that there might be an authentic portrait of Shakespeare, painted in life, provokes arched eyebrows from scholars and curators.

"People are always looking at pictures of men with beards and saying they're Shakespeare," Ms. MacLeod said. "We have to take a very skeptical stance because there is a whole industry in portraits of Shakespeare being discovered."

Mr. Legatt noted that while Shakespeare's appearance is largely irrelevant to his work, it matters very much on an emotional level. "The standard images, the engraving and the sort of lumpy statue, these have a kind of inexpressive quality that is frustrating," he said.

Mr. Wells agreed about the irrelevance of Shakespeare's appearance to scholars, although he said this picture might prompt some re-examination of the sonnets, which are considered Shakespeare's only autobiographical work, by those who impute character to this image of the poet's face.

Mr. Wells said that the Canadian's picture would be of huge interest to his institute, to the British National Gallery and portrait gallery, to the British Museum and Washington's Folger Library (which has one of the world's greatest collections of works by and about Shakespeare), to name just a few of the institutions -- and of course to many private collectors. The authentication

The Canadian Conservation Institute's Marie Claude Corbeil analyzed pigments, the binding media in the paint, the wood on which it is painted, and the paper label.

X-radiography and fluorescence searched for any elements added or changed later -- none was found.

X-ray spectrometry identified chemical elements, to establish consistency with the era.

Dr. R. P. Beukens at IsoTrace Radiocarbon Laboratory at the University of Toronto found that the label dates from 1475 to 1640.

Dr. Peter Klein, of the University of Hamburg, studied growth rings in the timber to date the work to 1597 at the earliest.