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The Stratford Festival has a new Shakespeare.

Canada's largest centre for theatrical production of Shakespearean work has reached an agreement with the owner of a possible life portrait of the playwright, and the Sanders portrait will be the face of Shakespeare for the Stratford Festival's 50th anniversary season.

The festival will use the Sanders portrait image -- a wry, quirky fellow with red hair, wearing a dark blue coat -- in marketing and merchandising material for the 2002 season. The arrangement is the brainchild of artistic director Richard Monette and executive director Antoni Cimolino.

"I would love to adopt him as our Shakespeare," Mr. Monette told The Globe and Mail when the existence of the portrait, in the possession of a retired Ontario engineer, was first reported in May. "It's Shakespeare in the New World. It's a very romantic picture."

The portrait is believed to have been painted by John Sanders, a bit actor in London theatres during William Shakespeare's era. It was passed down through the Sanders family for 400 years, and brought to Canada when they emigrated from England in the early 1900s. A label on the back of the portrait identifies the sitter as "Shakspere," painted in 1603.

Extensive scientific analysis by the Canadian Conservation Institute in Ottawa has shown the portrait to be a work from that era, with no later alterations.

There are only two existing images of Shakespeare which most scholars agree are likenesses, both created after his death. The Sanders portrait, as a possible life portrait, is estimated to be worth millions of dollars.

Confirming the deal, Stratford spokeswoman Kelley Teahen said yesterday that there was "an obvious resonance" between the festival and the portrait. "Certainly there is the idea that this is a portrait which may be a portrait of Shakespeare, discovered here, brought to the New World much like the Festival has brought Shakespeare's work to Canada."

At word of the news, the portrait's owner said: "I think it's fantastic. . . . It continues to reveal the true image of Shakespeare to the world."

Ms. Teahen said no decision had yet been made about possibly exhibiting the portrait at the Festival. The owner is continuing with the final steps of the portrait's scientific authentication and provenance before putting it up for sale.