Marquis de Sade’s ‘120 Days of Sodom’ returned to France


The original scroll on which notorious French writer Marquis de Sade penned “The 120 Days of Sodom”, his racy novel about murder, pedophilia and sexual perversion, has been returned to France after a prolonged legal dispute.


The parchment piece, first found hidden in a cell wall at Paris’s Bastille prison, will be displayed in the French capital starting in September to mark the bicentenary of the 18th century icon’s death.

Sade wrote the text in 1785 while imprisoned in the Bastille. The book traces the sexual adventures and manipulations of four French libertines who rape, torment, and finally kill young victims at a chateau in Germany’s Black Forest.

The scroll, which measure 12 meters (39 feet) long, was discovered in Sade’s cell when the jail was stormed during the French Revolution in 1789 (Sade had already been transferred to another facility). Since then, it has been stolen, hidden, and passed back and forth between courts in France and Switzerland.

But current owner Gerard Lheritier, the founder and president of Aristophil, a company specialising in rare letters and manuscripts, will exhibit the text at the Museum of Letters and Manuscripts – which he owns – in Paris’s 7th district.

Lheritier, who is French, recently purchased the manuscript for €7 million ($9.6 million). The story of how it ended up in his hands is long and twisting.

Hidden, sold and fought over in court

Thrown in jail in 1777 – first in Vincennes, then in the Bastille – for abusing several young girls, Sade began writing “The 120 Days of Sodom” eight years into his sentence. Having tucked the scroll into a crack in his cell wall before being moved to another prison, Sade died believing it lost in the destruction of the Bastille prison.

In fact, the manuscript, once described by Sade as “the most impure tale that has ever been told”, was found during the storming of the Bastille and subsequently sold to the Marquis de Villeneuve-Trans.

The Villeneuve-Trans family kept the scroll for three generations, then sold it to German doctor Iwan Bloch at the end of the 19th century. Bloch, in turn, published the text in Germany in 1904.

In 1929, Charles and Marie-Laure de Noailles, the latter a descendent of Sade, bought the original manuscript. Their daughter, Nathalie, handed it off in 1982 to a publisher friend, Jean Grouet, who later sold it for 300,000 francs (roughly €45,734, or $62,724) to a Swiss erotica collector named Gerard Nordmann.

The legal battle that followed saw a French court ruling that the scroll return to the de Noailles family in 1990, then a Swiss court deciding in 1998 that it still legally belonged to the Nordmann family.

Lheritier, the current owner, ended up buying the manuscript from Nordmann’s son, Serge.

He has said that he hopes the scroll ends up at France’s national library (BNF), located in the 13th district of Paris.


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