EMERGING FROM THE MORNING FOG shrouding the art galleries and boutiques of Paris’s 7th Arrondissement, the police arrived at the Hôtel de La Salle at 9am on 18 November 2014. Once home to the author of France’s code of civil law and, after that, sundry dukes and duchesses, the 17th-century mansion was now the headquarters of Aristophil, an upstart investment company founded by Gérard Lhéritier, the son and grandson of a plumber.
In just over two decades, the then-66-year-old Lhéritier—the “king of manuscripts”, as he’d been dubbed by the local media— had amassed the country’s largest private collection of historical letters and manuscripts, effectively cornering the market. Among his 130,000-odd holdings were André Breton’s original Surrealist Manifesto, love notes from Napoleon to Josephine, Louis XVI’s last testament and fragments of the Dead Sea scrolls.
The bulk was housed in Aristophil’s Museum of Letters and Manuscripts, around the corner on Boulevard St Germain. But Lhéritier’s star asset rested inside a custom-made glass display on the mansion’s ground floor: a yellowed, fraying parchment, 11.43cm wide and nearly 12m long, densely covered on both sides with 157,000 ornately handwritten words so minute they are virtually illegible without a magnifying glass. Composed in a prison cell by Donatien-Alphonse-François, better known as the Marquis de Sade, The 120 Days of Sodom has been variously described as “one of the most important novels ever written” and “the gospel of evil”.
Lost for more than a century and smuggled across Europe, it became one of the world’s most valuable manuscripts when Lhéritier purchased it for SGD13 million in March 2014—a year that happened to mark the bicentennial of Sade’s death and the final stage of his two-century-long re-evaluation. An exhibition in Aristophil’s offices was timed to coincide with a nationwide series of events that would culminate in December.
Lhéritier, a somewhat stout and diminutive man with thinning grey hair in a well-tailored suit and tie, was with a few employees discussing a recent reception he had attended at the residence of then president François Hollande when his assistant rushed in to inform him that the police were downstairs. At the same time, dozens of other agents swooped in on Aristophil’s museum, the offices of several Aristophil associates and Lhéritier’s villa in Nice. While the officers seized company documents, financial records and computer hard drives as potential evidence, the French courts froze his business and personal bank accounts.
Lhéritier stood accused of duping nearly 18,000 clients out of SGD1.3 billion. The claim, if true, would make him the architect of the largest Ponzi scheme in French history.
The extensive wars that Louis XIV had to wage throughout the course of his reign, while exhausting the state’s finances and the people’s resources, nevertheless uncovered the secret to enriching an enormous number of those leeches always lying in wait. . . It was toward the end of this reign . . . that four among them conceived the unique feat of debauchery we are about to describe. . . The time has come, friendly reader, for you to prepare your heart and mind for the most impure tale ever written since the world began. . .
So Sade began The 120 Days of Sodom on 22 October 22 1785, while imprisoned in the Liberty Tower of the Bastille. Scattered around him were assorted personal effects, a privilege afforded to inmates of his stature: stacks of books on everything from the existence of God to the history of vampires, packages of PalaisRoyal biscuits, bottles of lavender cologne, and one wooden dildo crafted, for personal use, to the Marquis’s precise specifications.
Born to a noble family in 1740, Sade had spent his life mired in scandal—he narrowly dodged a bullet fired by the father of one of his servants, slashed a beggar and poured hot wax into her wounds, and offered to pay a prostitute to defecate on a crucifix, to give a small but representative sample. In 1777, Sade’s powerful mother-in-law, Madame de Montreuil, understandably sick of his antics, secured an arrest warrant for the Marquis signed by her friend Louis XVI. Sade was locked away on no charges. By the time he began The 120 Days of Sodom, he had been jailed for eight years. Working by candlelight in the Bastille had rendered him nearly blind. Nonetheless, he wrote: “It is impossible for me to turn my back on my muse; it sweeps me along, forces me to write despite myself and, no matter what people may do to try to stop me, there is no way they will ever succeed.”
The 120 Days of Sodom tells the story of four aristocrats who abduct 16 boys and girls between the ages of 12 and 15 and subject them to four months of what would later be called, after the author, sadistic rape and torture. The novel begins with pedophiliac priests and golden showers, and things only degenerate from there—to incest, bestiality, coprophilia, necrophilia, starvation, disembowelment, amputation, castration, cannibalism and infanticide. By day 120, the château is awash in bodily fluids and strewn with corpses. Sade wrote every evening for 37 days, joining pages end to end to form a single scroll, and hid the obscene and blasphemous manuscript in the wall of his cell.
On 3 July 1789, Sade was forcibly transferred to a mental asylum outside Paris after using the funnel from his pissing tube as a megaphone to denounce his captors. Eleven days later, an insurgent mob stormed the Bastille; the French Revolution had begun. Sade was released a year later, amid the upheaval.
Calling himself Citoyen Louis Sade, he dabbled in politics before being arrested again in 1801 at the age of 61. Sade spent his final years back in the asylum. He went to his grave believing The 120 Days of Sodom had been destroyed in the sacking of the Bastille. “Every day,” he wrote of the missing work, “I shed tears of blood.”
The 120 Days of Sodom
TWO YEARS BEFORE LHÉRITIER’S INDICTMENT, as a troop of Napoleonic guards played an imperial march and women made up to look like 18th-century courtesans sipped champagne with government ministers, Aristophil’s founder stood behind a podium at the Hôtel de La Salle and welcomed his guests to the brand-new “pantheon of letters and manuscripts”.
Recent reports that the outfit was in trouble were nothing but unfounded “attacks”, Lhéritier said. “A successful company provokes jealousies, desires, questions and creates opponents. . . It is a permanent struggle.”