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At the National Gallery, they know what's coming.

"It's like serial killing," said David Franklin, chief curator, with a small sigh. But instead of copycat killings, he expects copycat art discoveries.

The Globe and Mail reported last week that an Ontario man has what may be the only likeness of Shakespeare painted during the playwright's lifetime. Now valued at potentially millions of dollars, the portrait lay under his grandmother's bed for years.

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In the wake of the discovery, the gallery, museums and auction houses across Canada expect to hear from people wondering about the authenticity of their own Shakespeareana -- or the value of oil paintings under their grandmother's beds.

"No question there is a connection with events and stories," said Michael Pantazzi, the gallery's curator of European art. A few weeks after a successful Monet exhibit, he will see a swell in calls from people wondering if they have a Monet. Now he expects correspondence from people who wonder about that statuette on the mantelpiece -- didn't Grandpa say that was Shakespeare?

The gallery holds monthly clinics for those curious about art work they may have inherited or found at country auctions.

Ninety-nine per cent of the time, the works are reproductions or fakes and have little commercial or artistic value.

But a handful of times, Mr. Franklin and his fellow curators have had happier news. Mr. Pantazzi found a picture by the French artist Jean-Léon Gerôme that had been handed down through a family for years and that its owners sold for a fair bit of money. Charlie Hill, curator of Canadian art, has found pictures by Cornelius Krieghoff and by the French Canadian impressionist Marc-Aurèle de Foy Suzor-Coté. The gallery in fact bought a picture by Canadian painter Pegi Nicol MacLeod from an owner who bought it at a garage sale. "That's the Antiques Road Show dream," Mr. Hill said.

The gallery has been holding its clinics for years; about 20 people turn up each month with their prints, drawings and sculptures. Mr. Pantazzi said he believes the National Gallery is the only such institution in the world still providing this service. The clinics are seen as a legal risk.

Mr. Franklin said the clinic-goers are "on the whole pretty humble about it, they don't expect to hit the jackpot." But they want to know what something is worth, which the gallery is not allowed to tell them. "Although if we're sure it's worthless we indicate that politely." If they think something is valuable, the curators advise the owner to take good care of it. They also provide the name of some good appraisers.

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Mr. Franklin said that most often, the clinic-goers bring what they think are prints and drawings, but are photographic reproductions. "But without a microscope and an experienced eye, they can be difficult to distinguish."

There are also outright fakes, with a falsified signature, or copies of a drawing -- one hopeful family thought they had a Turner.

It doesn't take Mr. Franklin or one of his curatorial colleagues long to establish the truth. The quality of the paper is critical; different techniques in papermaking can be precisely dated.

Another sign is what Mr. Franklin called "lack of vigour in the handling" -- which suggests someone has been methodically tracing, but not "actually exploring the line."

At least twice a month, Mr. Pantazzi is faced with someone carrying The Death of General Wolfe, the oil painting commemorating the battle on the Plains of Abraham painted by Benjamin West in 1770. It falls to Mr. Pantazzi to explain that there are thousands of copies.

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About the Author
Latin America Bureau Chief

Stephanie Nolen is the Latin America correspondent for The Globe and Mail.After years as a roving correspondent that included coverage of the wars in Iraq and Afghanistan, Stephanie moved to Johannesburg in 2003 to open a new bureau for The Globe, to report on what she believed was the world's biggest uncovered story, Africa's AIDS pandemic. More

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