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Portrait shows a morbid Poe in more flattering terms

BALTIMORE -- Edgar Allan Poe's fertile imagination has endured for more than 150 years -- and so has his pale, death-haunted image, with his sunken eyes, a trim mustache and unruly mop of curly hair.

However, scholars say Poe looked far more vigorous, perhaps even dashing, in his earlier years than he does in the well-known series of daguerreotypes taken in the final years of his life.

The more robust Poe is captured in a small watercolor by A.C. Smith, one of just three surviving portraits of the author, which will be shown publicly for the first time Saturday and is expected to fetch tens of thousands of dollars at auction.

Poe sits at a desk with pen and paper in hand, seemingly at the height of his creative powers. His upper lip is clean-shaven, though he sports long, bushy sideburns. And there's the slightest hint of a smile on his face.

''It actually represents Poe as he appeared to his contemporaries -- a handsome, sophisticated young man on the rise,'' said Cliff Krainik, the owner of the portrait and a Poe scholar. ''The daguerreotypes show him in his rather dissipated state, where he has gone through the difficulties of his life.''

While the portrait has been authenticated, much of its history remains unknown, the details of its creation a mystery that even Poe's famed detective, C. Auguste Dupin, would have trouble unearthing.

This much is certain: Smith was a miniaturist who worked at various times in Philadelphia and Baltimore, cities where Poe also lived, and Poe sat for the watercolor in 1843 or 1844 -- five or six years before his death.

Smith drew another sketch of Poe around the same time that served as a model for an engraving that was printed in Graham's Magazine in 1845.

It is unclear what Poe thought of the finished watercolor -- though he was not fond of Smith's sketch. In 1844, he wrote to James Russell Lowell, ''You inquire about my own portrait. It has been done for some time now -- but is better as an engraving, than a portrait. It scarcely resembles me at all.''