While in Shanghai last year, Boston College professor Jeremy Clarke heard a strange tale that could have sprung from the pages of a classic mystery novel: Nearly 100 scale models of historic Buddhist pagodas, exquisitely crafted by Chinese orphans a century ago, had seemingly vanished.
Clarke, a China scholar and Jesuit priest, returned to BC with a challenge for his China history class. Armed with their curiosity and the Twitter hashtag #findthosepagodas, the students embarked on a virtual odyssey to find the missing relics.
It took them from Shanghai to Chicago to an anonymous art collector in New York. They did extensive research online and queried art dealers and museum curators around the globe. They unearthed photos of the models.
The global pursuit ended last fall — of all places — just a few miles from campus, in a warehouse in Somerville, where the pagodas were being stored. Initially, Clarke’s students admitted they were by turns intrigued and annoyed by the project.
“A lot of us thought it was interesting,” said Sarah Malaske. “But we also thought, ‘Gosh, that sounds like a lot of work.’ ”
The outcome was gratifying. Three of the 86 models, including two nearly 6 feet tall, are on display this month in the atrium of BC’s O’Neill Library. For Clarke, the successful search is a happy convergence of his Jesuit commitment and his lifelong interest in Chinese culture.
“I see my role as a bridge between the Chinese Catholic communities and the outside world,” he said.
The project also carries special meaning for Damien Zhang, an exchange student who was part of the 25-member undergraduate sleuthing team. While growing up in China, he said, he and his friends would sometimes visit one of the great pagodas that inspired the models.
“I’m not Buddhist, so it was more of an architectural trip,” Zhang said recently as a few classmates and Clarke met at the library to see the newly installed models.
For Buddhists, he explained, the pagodas — some built a millennium ago — were designed as houses of worship, to get a little closer to heaven.
The students’ pursuit began in September. They pooled their talents — some were finance students, some studying international relations — and spent dozens of hours online to research the history of the pagodas.
They learned that the scale models were built for the 1915 Panama-Pacific International Exposition in San Francisco by children living in an orphanage that once sat on the site of the present-day Tushanwan Museum in Shanghai. Made of balsa wood, the miniature pagodas are delicately carved, with pinpoint effects. One on display at BC features a detail from the classical Chinese novel “Journey to the West.”
Clarke said the models were first purchased “for a bit of a song” by a representative for Chicago’s Field Museum of Natural History after the 1915 exposition. That much was clear, but the trail went cold after a sale to a private investor.
After decades of ownership, the Field Museum quietly put the pagodas on the market in 2007. The Peabody-Essex Museum in Salem was among the institutions that expressed interest. The Field kept three; the mysterious collector, who is said to have development ties to Boston, bought the rest.
After tracing the photos of the models, the students in the class, “From Sun Yat-sen to the Beijing Olympics,” tried to contact the Sotheby’s broker identified in the book.
“It was a little odd for her, I’m sure, getting e-mail from a college student,” said student Madeline Walsh. “How many college kids could afford to buy a piece of art?”
Through the grapevine, the broker eventually learned that the students’ search was legitimate. She helped persuade the collector, who wishes to remain anonymous, to permit the students to showcase three of the pagodas during the run-up to BC’s spring Arts Festival.
“The owner was actually very keen to display them,” said Clarke, who noted that the collector wants to bring the pagodas to San Francisco International Airport next year for the centennial anniversary of the 1915 exposition.
The four-year-old museum in Shanghai, where Clarke spoke at an international conference last year, hopes that at least some of the pagodas could be displayed permanently there as a way to honor the orphanage and its place in Chinese cultural history.
Such a decision, Clarke and the students acknowledge, would be up to the collector, because this is not a case of stolen art, like the pilfered European works chronicled in the film “The Monuments Men.” Still, the class debated whether the Field Museum or the current owner owed a debt to the people of Shanghai.
“The students have had to think it through: Who does own world culture?” he said.
Clarke’s students can graduate into the world knowing they shed a little light on a cultural mystery, like the Six Harmonies Pagoda, which has doubled for centuries as a lighthouse.
“These are cool things,” Clarke said of the models. “They shouldn’t be spending all their time in a warehouse.”