Don't miss: See rare copies of the Declaration of Independence

PORTLAND, Ore. - Two rare copies of the Declaration of Independence, which have never been on public display before now, are on exhibit at the Oregon History Museum.

They are part of the museum's new Windows on America: The Challenges of Presidential Leadership exhibit, a collection of 120 artifacts/documents from the Mark Family Collection. Portland philanthropist Melvin 'Pete" Mark spent decades collecting these items for his personal collection.

"This is the first ever showing of the Mark Collection and I think it's the finest collection of presidential artifacts this side of the Smithsonian," said Kerry Tymchuk, the museum's executive director.

The gems of the exhibit, of course, are the two copies of the Declaration of Independence but there is also another treasure - a handwritten letter from Thomas Jefferson to legislative leaders in Georgia, expressing his appreciation for helping elect him to the presidency.

Binns Copy

Americans treasured the declaration of July 4, 1776, asserting their independence. However, it was not until 1818 that Americans were able to see the text in engraved writing as opposed to print.

John Binns, a publisher of newspapers and engravings of famous Americans, conceived in 1816 a plan to print an accurate text surrounded by a decorative band of cords, flags, olive branches, state seals, and portraits of George Washington, John Hancock, Alexander Hamilton, and Thomas Jefferson.

Secretary of State John Quincy Adams authenticated the signatures, each carefully engraved by Tanner, Vallance, Kearney & Company. Nearly three years of work went into securing the artworks and preparing the plate for printing. Plain copies sold for $10; hand-colored copies were $13. The illustrated work was reproduced in 1872 as the first photoengraving in the world.

Stone Copy

The second is a rare Stone copy of the original Declaration. In 1802, John Quincy Adams hired William J. Stone (1798-1865) to create an exact facsimile of the Declaration of Independence.

The project consumed three years to etch the text and fifty-six signatures, exactly as written, onto a copper plate. It is likely that Stone put water on the Declaration in order to lift off an ink impression, a process that dramatically faded the original.

Stone commissioned 200 copies on vellum, however the copy on display is what is known as a "Peter Force Proof Copy," one of perhaps four copies printed on bank-note paper. It is named for the government official who started the archival documents collections of the Library of Congress. Force served as Stone's assistant and helped in printing the 1823 facsimile.

If You Go

The museum is located at 1200 S.W. Park Avenue in downtown Portland and will actually be open from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. on Thursday, July 4 for Independence Day. Regular museum hours are Monday through Saturday from 10 a.m. to 5 p.m. and Sunday from noon to 5 p.m.

Admission is free for Multnomah County residents and museum members. Otherwise it's $11 for adults, $9 for those 60 and older, $9 for students (with student ID) and $5 for kids ages 6 to 18. Kids 5 and under are free.