The French state has acquired the original manuscript of the Marquis de Sade’s “120 Days of Sodom” for over $5 million, safeguarding for the country a work declared a national treasure, the culture ministry said Friday. The 18th-century erotic masterpiece has endured a turbulent destiny over the centuries but the future of the original text now appears secure after a private benefactor stepped in with the money.
The culture ministry had in December 2017 stepped in to pull the sale of the manuscript from an auction, declaring it a national treasure and banning its export. The ministry said in a statement that it had paid 4.55 million euros ($5.34 million) to acquire the work for France. It hailed the text as a “monument” that has influenced numerous authors.
‘Tears of blood’
Before the culture ministry’s intervention, the manuscript had been due to be sold in an auction of historic documents owned by the French investment firm Aristophil, which was shut down in scandal two years previously, taking investors’ money with it. Sade wrote the controversial work about four rich libertines in search of sexual gratification on a roll made from bits of parchment he had smuggled into his cell in the Bastille prison. When the Paris prison was stormed at the beginning of the French revolution on July 14, 1789, the famously philandering aristocrat was freed, but he was swept out by the mob without his manuscript.
Sade believed it had been lost to looters and wept “tears of blood” over it, but the unfinished manuscript was preserved after being hidden by a revolutionary and then secretly bought by an aristocrat, the Marquis de Villeneuve-Trans. It became known to the public only after a German psychologist, Iwan Bloch, bought it and allowed its first publication in 1904. Even so, the book languished unpublished for more than a century and was banned in Britain until the 1950s. Measuring 12 meters long, the manuscript is itself something out of the ordinary, consisting of 33 sheets stuck together in a scroll.
The sum for its purchase by France was provided entirely by Emmanuel Boussard, a former investment banker and co-founder of the Boussard & Gavaudan investment fund, the ministry said. It will become part of the collection of the Arsenal library in Paris, a branch of France’s BNF national library. French courts seized 130,000 historic documents that Aristophil had bought for its investors in 2015 after police denounced the company as huge “pyramid scheme.” Aristophil claimed to have amassed the greatest private collection of French literary and historical documents in the world.
A libertine persecuted by the former regime and after the French Revolution, the marquis, whose full name was Donatien Alphonse Francois de Sade (1740-1814), spent a good part of his life behind bars. His contribution to literature was not truly recognized until the twentieth century, when the scandal over his writing abated in favor of understanding his ideas beyond the term “sadism” that takes his name. – AFP