Stolen Marquis de Sade’s Sex Manuscript, Insured by Lloyd’s, Returns to Paris

By | April 6, 2014

The Marquis de Sade’s scandalous and sexually graphic novel “120 Days of Sodom” has come back home.

Written in prison in 1785 — just before the French Revolution — and described by the Marquis himself as “the most impure tale ever told,” the original manuscript returned to France after three decades in the hands of a Swiss collector, and will be exhibited this year in Paris.

Stolen from the descendants of Sade in 1982 and sold to the Swiss erotic-books collector Gerard Nordmann, it was recently acquired for 7 million euros ($9.6 million) by a company called Aristophil SAS, which buys ancient and valuable manuscripts. The purchase ended several years of talks with Nordmann and Sade’s heirs, with the company paying them both. The item has been removed from Interpol’s list of stolen artworks.

“It’s a national treasure and it’s now back in France,” Gerard Lheritier, the chairman of Paris-based Aristophil said in an interview. “Neither the price tag nor the insurance estimate of 12 million euros reflects the value of Sade’s manuscript. It’s invaluable. It’s history.”

The book, from which the word “sadistic” is derived, tells the tale of four rich men who sequester themselves for four months in a medieval castle with their 42 victims, including male and female teenagers. They enlist four female brothel keepers to tell them graphic tales of their adventures. The women’s narratives inspire the men to perform 600 abusive sexual acts and torture, which end in the slaughter of the victims.

The crescendo of horror of the book makes it barely readable, Lheritier said. French writer Jean Paulhan calls the book the “Gospel of Evil.”

Parchment Pieces

The book’s genesis was in 1785 when the nobleman Marquis Donatien Alphonse François de Sade, was imprisoned at the Bastille in Paris. In his days in jail he secretly wrote the tale with the subtitle “The School of Libertinism.”

Sade wrote his novel on pieces of 11.5 centimeter parchment joined together to make a 12 meter-long (39.4 feet) scroll. Before he was taken to a hospital in 1789, Sade hid the manuscript in his cell, where it was found when the Bastille prison was ransacked.

The original manuscript is written in such miniscule script, it can’t be read without a magnifying glass. It will be on display starting September at Aristophil’s gallery at the Hotel de La Salle, Lheritier said. The gallery is housed in an 18th-century, 18,300 square-foot mansion in Paris’s upscale 7th arrondissement.

The mansion was bought in 2012 by Aristophil from the Carlyle Group. The company uses it to exhibit parts of its 135,000-large collection, which includes manuscripts by Albert Einstein, a will of King Louis XVI and Napoleon’s letters.

Death Bicentenary

Another recent Aristophil purchase now back in France, Lheritier said, is one of the early drafts of the Universal Declaration of Human Rights. His daughter bought it in Los Angeles last year for $30,000 in “a small Sunday auction.”

For the “120 Days of Sodom” meanwhile, the return to France marks a grand homecoming.

Banned by France until 1957 — although clandestine editions could be found in the 19th and early 20th century — Sade’s rehabilitation is almost complete in France.

The Marquis, who spent 27 years in jail, including for sexual abuse, will be celebrated this year, the bicentenary of his death.

By the end of the year, there will be a Sade biography, a festival and an exhibition at the Musee d’Orsay that will include his infamous manuscript.

Its return also ends a decades-long legal battle.

Swiss Courts

Soon after the manuscript was found in 1789, it was sold to an aristocrat named Marquis de Villeneuve-Trans and it remained in his family for three generations. Then in 1904 it was sold to a Berlin psychiatrist, who eventually sold it in 1929 to Sade’s descendants, the family de Noailles, which published a limited edition — with copies sold through subscriptions.

In 1982, Nathalie de Noailles, the heiress, loaned the original manuscript to a bookseller friend who stole and sold it for 300,000 French francs to Geneva-based Gerard Nordmann, a renowned collector of erotic manuscripts.

The “120 Days of Sodom” was even exhibited in 2004 at the Bodmer Foundation on the outskirts of Geneva.

De Noailles sought to get back the manuscript by court order in 1990. It failed after Swiss courts ruled that Nordmann acquired it lawfully.

After her death and that of Gerard Nordmann, Serge Nordmann, Gerard’s son, made public his intention to sell the manuscript. De Noailles’ son Carlo Perrone, a member of Sotheby’s advisory board, sought to buy it to donate it to France’s National Library. Nordmann refused to sell it to him.

‘See It’

Enter Aristophil. The company negotiated with the two sides before buying the manuscript this year.

Aristophil funds its purchases and its two museums, in Paris and Brussels, by selling manuscripts to shareholders who then collectively own the items — a legal system called “indivision” under French law.

Lheritier said he flew “The 120 days of Sodom” in a private jet from Geneva to Paris, where it is now kept in one of the foundation’s five vaults in the city. Lloyd’s of London is the insurer of the manuscript, he said.

Lheritier said he wanted to donate the Sade manuscript to the French National Library in five years. He said the Ministry of Culture has declined his offer. If the ministry classifies the manuscript as a National Treasure, it could represent a tax break for Lheritier’s Aristophil. The ministry didn’t respond to requests for comments.

The National Library is “very happy the manuscript is back in France and that its status is now cleared,” its spokeswoman, Claudine Hermabessiere told Bloomberg.

Wherever its new home in Paris, Lheritier said, he’s urging people to come take a look at what is a piece of French history.

“I don’t encourage people to read it, just to come see it,” he said.

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