What started as one book, two artifacts and an interest in history has evolved into a millennia-spanning art collection of thousands of rare objects and multiple libraries, comprising more than 11,000 volumes on art, all thoughtfully compiled by a University of Denver alumnus.
Today, the Nantucket, Massachusetts, home of David Billings (BSBA 1970) and his wife, Beverly Hall Billings, is brimming with their fascinating, 4,000-piece collection of Asian art, compiled over 50 years from sources around the world.
A meticulously curated selection from their collection is currently on display at the Whaling Museum on Nantucket. The exhibit, “Asian Treasures from The Billings Collection,” features around 300 pieces, many of which are on public display for the first time. The exhibit opened over Memorial Day weekend and runs through Nov. 1.
The exhibit—and the collection as a whole—represent a culmination of half a century of research, travels and dedication to collecting. “My collection covers the whole gamut,” Billings said.
The collection is primarily made up of Chinese art covering a span of about 8,000 years, from the prehistoric Neolithic period to the fall of the Qing Dynasty in the early 20th century. Items include scrolls, sculptures, snuff bottles, ceramics, textiles, paintings and more, made from precious materials such as jade, porcelain, glass and bronze. The collection also includes a rare example of the earliest paper money ever in circulation, dated around 1368 during the Ming Dynasty. Beyond China, the collection also features artifacts from other Asian regions, including what are now Tibet, India, Japan and Korea.
Billings, an East Coast native who says he loved his time at DU, first became interested in Asian art while he was living in Denver in the 1970s, after graduating from DU. His then-mother-in-law—an avid collector of Japanese art—gave him a book on Chinese art as well as two pieces from China and Japan. Through this connection, he became rooted in the Denver art scene and spent ample time in the Asian art galleries at the Denver Art Museum.
Billings already had a deep interest in and passion for history; he recalls taking a Russian history class, where an instructor discussed why an ancient cup had certain markings and dents on it. The sheer antiquity of the cup and the context surrounding what happened to it over the ensuring centuries captivated Billings. From there, his curiosity and passion only intensified.
“I was fascinated by something that old,” Billings said. “[The U.S.] is only about 300 years old. We’re talking about something that goes back 8,000 years. It’s a totally different feeling.”
After moving back to the East Coast, Billings began to pick up rare books and objects during regular visits to New York City and beyond. As a self-proclaimed “semi-compulsive reader,” Billings’ literary pursuits would continually lead him to explore new aspects of Chinese art, which in turn led him to search for artifacts that reflected his broadening interests. He didn’t intend to assemble a collection, but before he knew it, that’s what started happening.
“There wasn’t a plan to cover them all,” Billings said. “I didn’t have a checklist.”
As his collection blossomed, Billings began loaning objects to institutions around the world before reconvening them back at his home on Nantucket. Eventually, several prominent art dealers from New York City came to see the collection for themselves, noting that it was truly one-of-a-kind. Rather than having a narrow focus, as most collections do, this had a more far-reaching scope.
“I was surprised when I was told there wasn’t another collection like it,” Billings said. “It was sort of an ‘aha’ moment. You just don’t see a collection [like this] in a private setting.”
Now, the Billingses are sharing that private collection—and their singular expertise in Asian art history—with their fellow art and history buffs through the public exhibit at the Whaling Museum, presented by the Nantucket Historical Association.
The Billingses worked with an expert team that included a curator who helped select the objects for display, along with a designer and mount maker who helped create an exhibit that matches the splendor of the artifacts.
In total, from when they were first approached about creating the exhibit to its opening, the process took about two years, with several delays due to the COVID-19 pandemic. During lockdown, the Billingses wrote a detailed book, Passion and Pursuit: The Billings Collection, about their collection with descriptions and essays about the art and its history. Billings also spent time during lockdown restoring a full jade bodysuit from the Han Dynasty and a Peking opera diorama, all by hand. These two significant artifacts are on display as part of the exhibit.
While the exhibit showcases a portion of the Billingses’ artifacts, the collection is not finished growing. In fact, as a “living collection,” it may never stop growing—the Billingses continue to expand their collection with as much enthusiasm as ever.
“It’s ongoing. It’s not a static thing,” Billings said.
“Asian Treasures from The Billings Collection” is on display at the Whaling Museum in Nantucket, Massachusetts, through Nov. 1. Join DU and the Billingses for a special event at the Whaling Museum on July 30. Click here to learn more.