I visited the scroll one Sunday morning in November 2014 at the Museum of Letters and Manuscripts in Paris, where it was on exhibit in France for the first time ever, after years of legal and financial wrangling. Today just about 240 years old, the scroll projects the severe unease and distress of its maker (it has been called the ultimate in prison literature), taking you beyond curiosity to disbelief. Fitting that, just a week later, French gendarmes swooped down upon the museum and shut it down. They seized the scroll and a wealth of documents, thus terminating the Ponzi-like empire of its owner, rare-manuscript impresario Gérard Lhéritier.
The 120 Days scroll becomes a fascinating literary megalith in Joel Warner’s captivating new tale of the manuscript’s composition, life, and times, from 1785 to the present, a tale peopled by an improvident crew of wealthy and extravagant bourgeois, French and German intellectuals, and rare-book dealers and appraisers. Their interactions with the “cursed” scroll left in its wake, as the author puts it, “depleted fortunes, ruined relationships, social turmoil, theft and legal disputes, loneliness and pain, disease and death.”
Warner weaves three strands through The Curse of the Marquis de Sade: A Notorious Scoundrel, a Mythical Manuscript, and the Biggest Scandal in Literary History (2023). The through line tells the strange, twisted, and colorful story of the scroll from the time of its creation, when Sade was imprisoned just ahead of the French Revolution of 1789, to the present, when it was at last, in 2021, acquired by the French national library. Central to this trajectory is his second story: Lhéritier’s emergence as an extravagant entrepreneur who transformed the staid French world of rare books and manuscripts, employing dubious investment methods that, after a few years, started to look a lot like an illegal scheme for inflating prices. His empire is today in shambles and his legal problems endless—he faces both civil and criminal charges—though he insists that he will have vindication and a comeback.
Lhéritier, whom Warner interviews for the book, laments that he’s been called the “Bernie Madoff of France” in the press. But the numbers are fairly astounding: some 18,000 mainly small investors were sold shares worth €850 million, expecting to recoup a total of €1.2 billion for parking their money with his company, Aristophil. Unsurprisingly, the firm’s dissolution has engendered a rash of lawsuits, spawning the largest scandal in what had long been a quiet market in literary manuscripts and letters.
The book’s third strand, an effort to reprise the story of the Marquis de Sade, his life and crimes, is not successful. Warner depends largely upon four recent biographies, three of them fairly even-handed (Maurice Lever’s 1994 Sade: A Biography, Neil Schaeffer’s 1999 The Marquis de Sade: A Life, and Francine du Plessix Gray’s 1998 At Home with the Marquis de Sade: A Life) and one implacably hostile (Laurence L. Bongie’s 1998 Sade: A Biographical Essay). The result is a disjointed jumble that crams too much into a series of short chapters, each between five and 15 pages long.
Sade’s complex, exciting, and highly documented life is a poor fit with brief journalistic recitals. In 1772, Sade, nourishing theatrical and literary pretensions, committed sexual acts for which he was convicted in absentia and beheaded in effigy; he then fled justice, beginning an affair with his sister-in-law (understandably enraging his mother-in-law), ran off with her to Italy and attempted suicide when she left him, was captured and imprisoned but escaped, and returned to Italy for a leisurely voyage (soon writing an extensive travelogue) before, back in France, fomenting a sexual ménage with some young girls and his long-suffering yet loving and beloved wife, only to be captured by French police (through the machinations of his still-furious mother-in-law) and, in 1778, imprisoned in the old fortress at Vincennes by a royal lettre de cachet. This catalog of bizarre behavior and hectic incident Warner stuffs into 13 pages. The author’s efforts at dramatic framing (“As the church bells struck eight in the morning”; “In the dim light of a waning moon”) do not help, and instead present a recipe for indigestion.
So, too, do Warner’s efforts to trace Sade’s emergence as a complex and original figure in world literature. Concluding that Sade “may or may not have been a lunatic” is both vague and reductive, failing to come to grips with the abiding power of his writing. There exists today, as for the past 50 years and more, a thriving Sade industry in the world of French letters, and academia more generally. The “Sadean text,” writes Marcel Hénaff in his 1978 book Sade: The Invention of the Libertine Body, is “one of the most enigmatic and disquieting testimonies to the fate of our own civilization.” In Hénaff’s account, Sade’s licentious novels are not entertainments; rather, they constitute a “pitiless mirror. […] If Sade does not make you laugh and make you think, then throw his books onto the fire; for them that would be a happier fate than being subjected to a moralistic or flatly realist reading.”
Sade was 45 years old when he composed 120 Days of Sodom, imprisoned without charge for an undetermined sentence after a series of sexual scandals and court cases had embarrassed his aristocratic family. Restored to freedom in 1790, he became active in revolutionary circles, earning the enmity of Robespierre, and by a hair’s breadth escaped the guillotine before moving on to forge a career as a playwright and novelist, the author of ambitious philosophical works like Aline and Valcour (1793) but also of the scandalous novels Justine, or Good Conduct Well Chastised (1791) and Juliette, or the Prosperities of Vice (1797). When Napoleon came to power, the emperor had Sade arrested, again without being formally charged, and confined to an asylum for the insane, where he died in December 1814.
So, 120 Days of Sodom was Sade’s first extended work of fiction, if you can call it that. The scroll chronicles the violence committed upon a collection of young victims by four vile libertines over the course of three months as they gather to listen to (and often reenact) tales told by a quartet of female storytellers. The whole comprises a virtual catalog of exotic sexual acts and abominations. You can call it pornography, and the graphic language suggests as much, but the book’s strange and extreme character contests that notion. Read it and you come away not excited but wounded. Perhaps the most accurate gloss comes from Samuel Beckett, who in 1938, when he was considering translating the book, wrote, “The obscenity of the surface is indescribable,” but added: “Nothing could be less pornographical. It fills me with a kind of metaphysical ecstasy. The composition is extraordinary, as rigorous as Dante’s.”
The novel, though only a partial draft, might as well be considered the finished product. Sade necessarily wrote in secrecy. He concealed the scroll in his cell, only to lose it when he was suddenly transferred—“naked as a worm,” as he wrote in a letter—a few days ahead of the revolutionary tumult in July 1789 that culminated in the storming of the Bastille. He never saw 120 Days again, and for its loss, he claimed “every day [to] shed tears of blood.”
But the scroll survived the sacking of the prison. It was plucked from the wreckage by one Arnoux de Saint-Maximin. In 1789, Sade was already known to the wider public as a sexual scoundrel and, a few years later, as an infamous author. By 1796, the scroll had been sold to the Marquis de Villeneuve-Trans, the scion of an aristocratic family who kept a collection of rare books; and in that way, it passed down through several generations. Around 1875, a German doctor, Iwan Bloch, learned of it, sought it out in France, and made good use of it. Bloch was a pioneer, much like Richard von Krafft-Ebing and Magnus Hirschfeld, in the investigation of human sexuality. He came to view Sade as his precursor and wrote a long book about his life and work. In 1904, he published the first French edition (transcribed from the scroll), entitled The 120 Days of Sodom, or The School of Libertinage, which he described as essentially a catalog of perversions.
Interest in Sade revived in the early 20th century and spiked with the advent of the French surrealists, who viewed him (along with other scandalous figures like Arthur Rimbaud and Comte de Lautréamont) as a progenitor. In 1929, the scroll was returned from Germany to France, where it henceforth resided in the home of Charles and Marie-Laure de Noailles, wealthy and eccentric patrons of the surrealists and distant relatives of the Sade family. A new and authoritative edition of the book, limited to just 300 copies, was published in 1930. For all this growing attention, Sade’s works remained officially banned in France. But in the late 1940s, Jean-Jacques Pauvert started publishing Sade’s collected works, winning a judgment in 1958 that his books could not be banned as pornography, a major victory not only for Sade and his publisher but also for free speech in France.
Meanwhile, the scroll itself embarked upon a life of its own. For several decades, it remained a unique surrealist object, a curiosity that the Noailles displayed to guests and literary visitors. It survived the Nazi occupation and, after the death of Marie-Laure in 1970, was passed on to Nathalie, her daughter. One day, Nathalie lent 120 Days to a trusted friend and sometime publisher, Jean Grouet. When she asked for it back, Grouet returned the leather box in which it was kept—but not the scroll itself. He had smuggled it out of France and sold it in Switzerland. The scroll had vanished.
From 1982, when the scroll became a purloined object, through the first decade of the 21st century, Sade’s literary stock rose to new heights. His reputation, already dynamic after the Second World War, was significantly burnished in 1990 when his works entered the Pléiade canon, published in prestigious bible-paper editions, albeit over the objections of some traditionalists. Sade was a premodernist addition with a postmodern audience. His intransigent materialist way of thinking had become ever more relevant as the significance of Holocaust atrocities and colonialist depredations spread out across the literary horizon. Sade insisted on the limits of reason in ways most of his Enlightenment contemporaries had refused to acknowledge, and this gave him heightened relevance. A generation of scholars grew interested in Sade; many of them were women because, beyond surface misogyny, Sade was arguably (as Angela Carter, for example, claimed in her 1978 book The Sadeian Woman and the Ideology of Pornography) an Enlightenment protofeminist who belonged beside such figures as Mary Wollstonecraft. Like it or not, there was room for him in the French literary pantheon.
Hence, and not surprisingly, the missing scroll became an incredibly valuable piece of Sade’s legacy. It remained in private hands in Switzerland after Gérard Nordmann, a wealthy corporate executive, purchased it from Grouet. A fascinating moment in Warner’s book comes when Carlos Perrone, rich heir to Nathalie de Noailles, visits the equally wealthy Nordmann and offers to reimburse him whatever sum he’d paid for the scroll, simply in order to return it to France. It was stolen property, as they both knew—didn’t they? Wouldn’t the law and good manners dictate their actions? With all the discreet charm of the bourgeoisie, Nordmann refused. He collected erotic texts, and this one, he said, belonged to him. “It is my dream to have this manuscript,” he told Perrone. “I will keep it for the rest of my life.”
And so he did. Nordmann’s refusal became the fulcrum for a legal battle that would last decades. In France, the Noailles family obtained a legal ruling asserting that Nordmann had purchased stolen property. But Switzerland was not a signatory to an international UNESCO convention governing repatriation of cultural property. The scroll remained Nordmann’s until after his death in 1992. The Swiss Supreme Court, evidence be damned, decided in 1998 that Nordmann had acted in good faith when he bought the scroll. 120 Days remained with his estate.
In 2010, however, Nordmann’s widow and children made it known that the scroll was for sale. Price was the only question, of course, and it remained so even after Bruno Racine, president of the Bibliothèque nationale, thought he had an agreement in 2013 to purchase it for €3.5 million. But shortly before the contract was finalized, the Nordmann estate reneged. Somebody had stepped in with a better offer: €4 million. Money talks.
How former insurance broker Gérard Lhéritier purchased and repatriated the lost scroll in 2014, just as the empire he created was about to explode, is the story Warner tells with skill, from beginning to end. Lhéritier, born in 1948, was hunting a birthday present for his son in 1986 when he came across an antique letter that had been mailed from Paris by hot air balloon during the 1870 siege of the city by the Prussian army. This proved to be one of many such missives transported above enemy lines, freighted with the romantic and revolutionary history of the Paris Commune. A century later, Lhéritier sensed a business opportunity: untapped potential in buying and selling the rare balloon letters and stamps.
Lhéritier’s success in creating this venture, at first an outgrowth of philately, made it past a minor scandal and bankruptcy in the 1990s. He soon reinvented his business, expanding it to encompass historical documents and correspondence, founding the company he called Aristophil. The business remained modest for the first decade but grew rapidly after 2002, when Lhéritier made a killing after purchasing a cache of letters between Albert Einstein and Swiss engineer Michele Besso. He paid $595,500 at auction for the letters, then turned around and sold “shares” of the correspondence to some 400 mostly small investors. He created a system of “joint ownership” that had never before been used in buying and selling manuscripts. The resulting cash flow enabled Lhéritier to purchase manuscripts with the promise that, in a few years, he would buy back investors’ shares and pay a considerable premium because their actual value would (supposedly) have increased over time.
Over the course of a decade, the system Lhéritier devised revolutionized the market in rare manuscripts and letters, injecting promotional dynamism and a strong dose of hucksterism into the staid business of manuscript appraisal and sales. A letter from Napoleon, the surrealist manifestos of André Breton, fragments of the Dead Sea Scrolls—these were just a few of the many prizes into which investors could sink their savings, buying Aristophil’s spiel that the value of such documents could only grow, especially as digital forms of communication were putting an end to the handwritten and printed word. Lhéritier advertised himself prominently, and soon his high-profile company was headquartered on the Champs-Élysées. He would ultimately gather some 18,000 investors and sell some €700 million in contracts.
But by 2012, both investigative journalists and government officials in France had taken note of Lhéritier’s business model and practices. Although there was underlying value to the products he was dealing, his methods of selling shares in properties, revaluing them with a promise to buy them back later at considerable interest, looked suspiciously like a Ponzi scheme. In 2012, the French authorities issued a warning to investors concerning “atypical investments,” including letters and manuscripts. In May 2013, after intensive research, journalist Jérôme Dupuis published the first exposé of Aristophil in L’Express. A few months later, the government launched an investigation targeting the company.
Lhéritier behaved, outwardly at least, as if he was remarkably unconcerned by such unsought attention. He may have been buoyed, morally and financially, because he’d won some €169 million in the European lottery in 2012—a huge payout, curious in itself. At all events, instead of acting with caution, Warner writes, Lhéritier became “more ostentatious than ever.” He appeared on the cover of a glossy magazine and planned to launch a new auction house of his own.
But most notably, on March 25, 2014, Lhéritier retrieved the scroll of 120 Days of Sodom and returned it to France after its long, dubious sojourn in Switzerland. Having outbid the French government’s €3.5 million, he then offered to donate the scroll after five years to the national library. That offer wasn’t appreciated, but after Lhéritier succeeded in his quest, he had no trouble finding investors to pay €5,000 per share. In front of television cameras in Geneva, he was handed the scroll in a cardboard box. He boarded a Cessna jet and returned to Paris, where he was greeted with acclaim.
Despite a gathering cloud of financial scandal, Lhéritier’s timing couldn’t have been better. The bicentennial of Sade’s death in 1814 had brought much attention to the author’s life and works. Some of this response was pure kitsch, from scented candles to a themed selection of wines, but there were also academic conferences, biographies and novels, blog posts, and widespread press coverage. Most notable was Attacking the Sun, an extensive exhibit at the Musée d’Orsay that keenly illustrated many of Sade’s themes, both societal and erotic, via works by Cézanne, Ingres, Rodin, Picasso, and many others. The exhibit was curated by Annie Le Brun, who had edited Sade’s collected works, and the title, drawn from 120 Days, held a certain eco-resonance. “How many times, good God,” opines the twisted magistrate Curval, “have I not wished it were possible to attack the sun, to deprive the universe of it, or to use it to set the world ablaze—those would be crimes indeed.”
Lhéritier’s own visions of omnipotence came crashing down in November 2014, when French authorities descended upon his museum. They seized his documents and shut down his business altogether. Soon, Aristophil was placed into receivership and Lhéritier was indicted. He was accused, among other charges, of fraud, illegal marketing practices, and money laundering. While the firm’s assets are being gradually sold at auction, it will take years to liquidate all the documents, meaning that his 18,000 clients may one day hope to recover a fraction of their investments. Some documents, including the scroll, were not allowed to go to auction because they were declared national treasures.
In the years since Aristophil was brought down, investors have sued, and litigation is ongoing. Lhéritier continues to claim that he’s done nothing wrong and never engaged in deception. After bankruptcy, all he had left was a villa in the hills surrounding Nice. “It might take two or three years,” he told Warner in 2016, “but they aren’t going to get me.” Six years later, he still awaits his day in court
In 2021, with the world distracted by the COVID-19 pandemic, the French national library finally acquired the scroll, thanks to the generosity of an investment banker, Emmanuel Boussard, who provided €4.5 million and was rewarded with tax breaks. That was a half a million more than Gérard Lhéritier had paid but not half the amount shelled out by Aristophil investors.
Apart from the curse surrounding it, the scroll is well worth seeing. If you’re in France anytime from September 16 this year until September 15 in 2024, consider visiting the museum of the Bibliothèque nationale, located in the heart of Paris, where The 120 Days of Sodom will be on display. Plans call for the scroll to be unrolled to its full 40 feet.
But invest wisely. Entrance to the museum will cost you €10.
John Galbraith Simmons is a nonfiction author and novelist. He translated (in collaboration with Jocelyne G. Barque) Marquis de Sade’s Aline and Valcour, or The Philosophical Novel (Contra Mundum, 2019).