Fea­ture

Esquire (Singapore) - - Style -

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

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