Marquis de Sade Magnum Opus Returns to France


The infamous Marquis’ most inflammatory piece of work has been returned to its country of origin after a 25-year legal battle

Written by the Notorious Donatien Alphonse François de Sade (aka the Marquis de Sade) as he languished in the Bastille in 1785, the original manuscript of “Les Cent Vingt Journées de Sodome” (120 Days of Sodom) was hidden, stolen, sold, fought over in courts in France and Switzerland and bought again for €7 million, and now finally returned to Paris in the year of the bicentenary of the death of the “Divine Marquis”.

“This exceptional manuscript, stolen in 1982, alerted to Interpol and disputed over by two families, is finally back in France… But it took three years of hard negotiations.” So says the new owner of the manuscript Gérard Lhéritier, the founding president of Aristophil and of the Musée des Lettres et Manuscrits – a private museum on the Boulevard St Germain in Paris.

The businessman apparently paid out €7 million for this much-sought-after original which is amongst the most valuable conserved manuscripts in France. It’s now insured for €12 million by Lloyds.

The hand-written roll of text of this mythical oeuvre contains a catalogue of sexual perversions of unprecedented violence and was written by de Sade whilst in the Bastille but without the knowledge of his gaolers. It returns to France from Geneva in a perfectly preserved condition and it will be presented to the public at the Institut from September onwards.

An illustration of De Sade in his cell

An illustration of De Sade in his cell

The story of this particular manuscript was the first but also the most extreme of his sadistic (a word he gave to many languages, including English) writings. He was imprisoned in 1777 first in Vincennes and later moved to the Bastille for “abuses” to a number of young girls. Deprived of the satisfaction of fulfilling his torrid fantasies, the marquis sat in his cell for eight years before deciding to clandestinely play them out on paper. The story involves four men aged 45 to 60, locked up in a castle in the Black Forest in the middle of winter with 42 young girls and boys, on whom they inflict six hundred perversions.

There is plenty to shock in the book, with scenes of murder, torture and humiliation in which people, animals or God are not spared. Although it does have its fans, most people consider the book unreadable. Even the infamous French eroticist Georges Bataille said he found reading it “painful”.

In order to hide his book from gaolers, Sade wrote in minuscule writing on both sides of small sheets that were 12cm wide. He then assembled the sheets in a roll 12.1 metres long, which he managed to secrete between the blocks of his cell wall. The rolled-up manuscript remained there for three years until the monumental day of Revolution in July 1789.

From the 2nd of July onwards, Sade was at the window every day, egging on the masses through the bars of his cell, encouraging them to burn down the prison. The royal administration decided to move him from the Bastille to the lunatic asylum of Charenton. All his personal effects were left behind in the Bastille, which was subsequently attacked by the Parisian mob and raised to the ground. Right up until his death in 1814, the Marquis believed his precious oeuvre to have been destroyed, causing him to “cry tears of blood”.

The now-famous roll of perverse writings was saved from destruction and sold to the Marquis of Villeneuve-Trans and the family conserved the roll for three whole generations, before finally selling it at the end of the 19th century to a Berlin psychiatrist Iwan Bloch. He published an error-strewn translation of it in 1904. In 1929, Charles and Marie-Laure de Noailles (herself a direct descendant of de Sade by her mother) bought the manuscript and published a limited edition of it to subscribers in order to avoid censorship.

Then in 1982, their daughter Nathalie de Noailles entrusted the precious roll to her editor friend Jean Grouet, who wished to study it, as well as the original score of Stravinsky’s ballet “The Wedding”. A few months later, Nathalie asks for the return of the manuscript, but the leather-bound case is empty: Jean Grouet sold the roll on the 17th of December for 300,000FF to Swiss national Gérard Nordmann.

After a protracted legal battle, the French judicial system decided in June 1990 that the manuscript was stolen and should be be restored to the de Noailles family. In May 1998, however, the Swiss courts find that Nordmann acted in good faith and that he had acquired the document in a perfectly legal manner. After Nordmann’s death in 1992, however, his family decide to sell on this cumbersome treasure.

“The important thing is that the manuscript is back in France and that its status is clear,” says a spokesman for the National Library of France, who haven’t given up on the idea of the book returning to their collection at some future point…

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