The manuscript of the Marquis de Sade’s infamous erotic tale The 120 Days of Sodom has been acquired by the French government for €4.55m, following a campaign to keep it in the country.
Written in 1785 by the aristocrat while he was imprisoned in the Bastille for a series of sexual scandals, the notorious scroll manuscript tells of four libertines, searching for sexual gratification, who abduct and sexually torture teenage victims. Sade, who described it as “the most impure tale ever written since the world began”, hid the 12 metre-long scroll in the wall of his cell, leaving it behind when he was moved to an asylum in 1789, 10 days before the Bastille was stormed.
Although its author never saw it again, the scroll survived, but was not published until 1904, by the sexologist Iwan Bloch. It was acquired by Sade’s descendants, the Noailles family, in 1929, but was stolen in 1982 and sold to erotica collector Gérard Nordmann. A private foundation acquired the scroll in 2014, and in 2017, France’s ministry of culture designated it a national treasure, putting a block on its export.
In February, the French government appealed for corporate help to acquire the manuscript. The purchase price was provided in its entirety by Emmanuel Boussard, co-founder of the Boussard & Gavaudan investment fund, said the ministry of culture, which described the manuscript as a “veritable monument” that has “profoundly marked many authors”, from André Breton to Georges Bataille.
It will join the collection at the Arsenal library in Paris, which is a branch of the Bibliothèque nationale de France. Boussard’s grandfather, said the BNF, was a curator at the Arsenal library between 1943 and 1964.
“This manuscript, an emblem of literary and artistic freedom, with a troubled trajectory, rejoins the public collections and the records of the prisoner Sade kept in the archives of the Bastille at the library of the Arsenal,” said the BNF. “It is now a classic, with immense posthumous fortune … The entry of this manuscript into the national collections will allow researchers to continue the studies that have been devoted to it.”