After more than five years of legal wrangling, France has acquired the iconic original manuscript of the Marquis de Sade’s magnum opus The 120 Days of Sodom for 4.55 million euros ($5.34 million). The purchase was funded entirely by one generous donor: investment banker Emmanuel Boussard.
This is the second time the French state threw $5 million at the famous manuscript. The first time the Bibliothèque Nationale de France raised the huge sum to acquire it when its private owners put it up for auction in 2013. Negotiations fell through at the last minute due to the complications of the dirty title. (The manuscript had been stolen from the Sade family descendants by a con man in the 1980s and sold in Switzerland. Swiss courts ruled the buyers had legitimate title because they bought “in good faith.” French courts recognized it as the blatantly stolen and illegally exported object it was, so any return of the scroll to France would see it confiscated at the border. Read the whole fascinating, sordid backstory in this post.)
In 2014, the manuscript was sold privately to Gérard Lhéritier of Aristophil, a company that bought historic documents and then sold shares in them. Aristophil’s collection of 130,000 historic documents was seized in 2015 and the company’s business plan revealed to be a Ponzi scheme that defrauded more than 18,000 investors. Aristophil was forced into insolvency and the courts mandated the sale of all its assets.
The collection was so huge that it was sold piecemeal over the course of six years to properly catalogue everything and so as not to flood the important documents market and drive down prices. While the sale divisions were being worked out, the Bibliothèque Nationale de France feverishly set to having the scroll declared a national treasure which would prevent any international sale. They succeeded in 2017 and The 120 Days of Sodom was withdrawn from auction.
It was trapped in this holding pattern — no private sale allowed, no funds for public acquisition — for almost four years. In February 2021, the French government appealed for private help, offering a reduction in corporate taxes for any company that helped buy the manuscript for the country. Boussard heeded the call.
The manuscript is a scroll five inches wide and 39 feet long, made from 33 pieces of parchment the Marquis had smuggled into his cell in the Bastille in 1784. He covered every piece with his tiny cramped handwriting and then glued the next piece of parchment to the completed one so he could keep on going. The long, skinny parchment train could be rolled up tightly and hidden in a crack in his wall. He wrote the whole thing in 37 days, and while he would spend five years in the Bastille, getting transferred to Charenton asylum on July 4th, 1789, 10 days before the prison fortress was so famously stormed, he never completed what he hoped would be his great masterpiece.
When he was hastily transferred to Charenton in the middle of the night, he had to leave his scroll behind. He assumed it had been destroyed in the assault on the Bastille, but in fact a young revolutionary named Arnoux de Saint-Maximin had found it and spirited it out of the prison on July 12th. It has been in private hands, licit and otherwise, for more than 230 years.
The scroll has been assigned to the Arsenal branch of the Bibliothèque Nationale de France in Paris.