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Billings Exhibition Puts Rare Artifacts on Display

During the first 80 years of the United States of America, the China trade helped our new nation’s growth, economically and commercially. Merchants up and down the East Coast, including from Nantucket, sailed East to trade ginseng, furs, sandalwood, and silver for colorful silks, aromatic teas, exquisitely crafted porcelain, and other exotic goods.

Friday, May 27, at 10 am, the Nantucket Historical Association (NHA) will host an exhibition of Asian Treasures from the Billings Collection in the Whaling Museum’s McCausland Gallery.

The exhibition draws from the collection that longtime Nantucket residents and world travelers David Billings and Beverly Hall Billings have assembled over half a century. It all started with a book and two pieces of Asian art David Billings received as a gift, and now their collection includes 4,000 artifacts. The items in the collection elucidate political, economic, and religious events and, at the same time, present enormous aesthetic appeal. Most illustrate significant Chinese innovations and discoveries over the millennia.

Most pieces included in the show are being shown for the first time publicly, and the NHA is excited to be able to give islanders and visitors the opportunity to see a significant portion of the Billings Collection. The NHA’s changing galleries at the Whaling Museum are the only museum spaces on the island equipped to present pieces like these safely and securely.

A pair of large kingfisher feather-embellished gilt metal finials of a roaring dragon, Qing Dynasty (1644 – 1911), 21 ½” x 16″. Provenance: Christies, New York City.

The exhibition will feature paintings, textiles, bronzes, and jade items. However, ceramics will predominate, including some of the earliest-known pieces of earthenware from 5,000 BCE and porcelain that dates from the Qing Dynasty, the last Imperial Chinese Dynasty. The exhibit will also include a scholar’s table, featuring items an ancient Chinese scholar might have used to contemplate and write, a Japanese Buddhist household shrine, and robes from the imperial court. While the Billings Collection concentrates on China, additional pieces will appear from India, Burma, Tibet, Korea, and Japan.

Among the many captivating objects is a pair of exquisite gold finials inlaid with rare kingfisher feathers, a selection of Chinese snuff bottles, Tibetan and tea ceremony objects, a large Butsudan shrine, a Jin Rickshaw, and a wonderfully articulated diorama of a Peking opera. A Jade body suit burial cleverly concealed will round out this exceptional exhibition.

“This exhibition offers an extraordinary and rare opportunity to discover and examine works of art that reveal Asian culture right here on Nantucket. It also highlights that Nantucketers have varied interests and collections that can broaden all of our perspectives,” states Chip Carver, NHA Board President.

Passion and Pursuit: The Billings Collection, a new 350-page book with full-color images written by David Billings and Beverly Hall Billings and published concurrently with the exhibition is available in the NHA’s Museum Shop.

Articles by Date from 2012