and invested some USD40 million of his winnings in Aristophil. And he was preparing to make his most audacious acquisition yet.
SADE WAS WRONG: The 120 Days of Sodom wasn’t lost in the siege of the Bastille. It was discovered by a young man named Arnoux de Saint-Maximin, who spirited the rolled-up parchment out of the crumbling prison and sold it to the Marquis de VilleneuveTrans. Villeneuve-Trans’s descendants hid the manuscript in their Provençal estate for more than a century, ultimately selling it to a German collector in 1900. In 1904, the Berlin sexologist Iwan Bloch published a few hundred copies of Sade’s previously unknown novel, ostensibly for scientific purposes.
The scroll returned to France in 1929, when it was purchased by Charles and Marie-Laure de Noailles, patrons of the European avant-garde movement who traced their ancestry to Sade. The Noailles allowed a Sade authority to borrow the manuscript and produce a more accurate version of the text, which he published via limited subscription to avoid censorship. The family then kept the scroll in a library cabinet, breaking it out for readings when entertaining luminaries like Luis Buñuel and Salvador Dalí.
“I remember when intellectuals would come to visit, it was always a special moment to show them the manuscript,” says Carlo Perrone, the Noailles’ grandson. “We would take it out of the box three or four times a year. It was not something we showed everybody.” In 1982, Perrone, then in his 20s, received a panicked call from his mother: The manuscript was gone. She’d lent it to a close friend, the publisher Jean Grouet, who’d smuggled it into Switzerland and sold it for roughly USD60,000. The buyer was a department-store magnate, Gérard Nordmann, owner of one of the largest private collections of erotica in the world. Perrone travelled to Switzerland to retrieve the manuscript, offering to buy it back. But Nordmann refused, telling Perrone: “I will keep it for the rest of my life.”
After a lengthy legal battle, France’s highest tribunal ruled that the manuscript had been stolen and ordered that it be returned to the Noailles. But Switzerland, which hadn’t yet ratified the UNESCO convention requiring the repatriation of stolen cultural goods, disagreed. In 1998, the Swiss federal court ruled that Nordmann had purchased it in good faith.
The manuscript’s author, meanwhile, was enjoying a cultural resurgence. By the time the French ban on his books was lifted in the 1970s, Sade was seen in some circles as a man ahead of his time: muse of the surrealists, forerunner of Freud, even prophesier of the Holocaust. With his works now published by the distinguished Bibliothèque de la Pléiade and Penguin Classics, the Divine Marquis had entered France’s literary pantheon.
For generations, the Sade family refused the title Marquis because of its notorious associations. Today, Hugues de Sade, a direct descendant, sells wine, spirits and beer under the brand Maison de Sade. “He must be looking up right now from his grave, smiling,” Hugues told me, sitting in his flat on the outskirts of Paris, where a bronze of his famous ancestor’s skull enjoys pride of place on his coffee table. He is holding out hope for a Sadethemed line of Victoria’s Secret lingerie.
Nordmann remained true to his word. He kept The 120 Days of Sodom for the rest of his life. After his death in 1992 and his widow’s in 2010, Nordmann’s heirs put his collection of erotica up for sale. Sensing an opportunity, Bruno Racine, the director of the National Library of France, with the backing of France’s Commission of National Treasures, lined up roughly USD5 million in private donations to buy the historic scroll in 2013. The sellers agreed to share the proceeds with Perrone and his family.
Two days before the deal was to be finalised, the Nordmanns backed out. Maybe, as Perrone would later tell the French press, the courtroom battles were still too fresh for the family to make a deal involving the manuscript’s former owners. Or maybe the Nordmanns had an inkling they could hold out for a better offer.
Not quite a year later, in March 2014, Lhéritier announced that he’d purchased The 120 Days of Sodom for SGD13 million. The bulk of the proceeds went to the Nordmanns and to Perrone and his family. The rest covered taxes, fees and, presumably, a hefty commission for Vrain, the mastermind behind the deal.
Lhéritier, accompanied by a television news crew, chartered a private jet to claim his prize. He offered to donate the manuscript to the National Library after exhibiting it for five to seven years, in exchange for a significant reduction in his company’s tax obligation. The National Library was on board with the agreement, but Filippetti’s Ministry of Culture, still smarting from the de Gaulle episode, declined. “Suspicion against the sustainability and integrity of Aristophil led the state not to proceed with this proposal,” Racine, whose term as National Library director ended in 2016, told me in an email.
The Musée d’Orsay asked to borrow the scroll for its blockbuster exhibition Sade. Attacking the Sun, opening that October. Lhéritier refused, believing that if he lent the manuscript to the museum, which operated under the authority of the minister of culture, he might never get it back, thereby losing it to the French government without the benefits of his original offer. Instead, a month before the museum’s show, he mounted his own exhibition. Perrone did not attend. “My relationship with Lhéritier was not that friendly,” he says.
Two months later, the police showed up at Lhéritier’s door.
“FILIPPETTI AND SOME MALICIOUS PROSECUTORS thought that the manuscript would be submitted free of charge after Aristophil’s destruction,” Lhéritier told me through a translator. “They placed a bomb in the heart of Aristophil and its museums, and it exploded.”
Lhéritier is sitting at his dining table in his fortress-like stone villa in the hills above Nice, wearing a cobalt-blue suit with a plaid open-collared shirt and matching pocket square. In the bright white light coming off the Mediterranean on this warm December 2016 day, he looks older, more tired than he appears in even relatively recent photos. This is the first time Lhéritier has spoken at length publicly about the rise and fall of Aristophil since he’s come to be regarded as France’s Bernie Madoff.
Agents in the country’s consumer-affairs and fraud-prevention division, leery of Aristophil’s unusual business model, spent years investigating the company. Interviewing Castaing and other sources in the manuscript market, they concluded that Lhéritier built Aristophil as an elaborate shell game.
According to lawyers representing the company’s former clients, Lhéritier and his colleagues considerably overvalued Aristophil’s holdings while using new investments to pay off