‘120 Days of Sodom’, Marquis de Sade’s Depraved Opus, Declared a French National Treasure

Officials sought to prevent the manuscript from being sold at an upcoming auction

Engraving of the Marquis de Sade (1740-1814) Public domain/Mary Evans

From his cell in the notorious Bastille prison, the French nobleman Marquis de Sade penned what is arguably the most perverted text ever put to paper.  But in an effort to stop the 18th-century manuscript of 120 Days of Sodom from being sold at auction—and potentially taken out of France—officials have now declared Sade’s depraved opus a national treasure, the Agence France Presse reports.

The manuscript was part of the sale of many historic documents owned by the French investment firm Aristophil, which was shut down two years ago after being accused of embezzling up to €850 million (about $1 billion), according to Henry Samuel of the Telegraph. The company had acquired more than 130,000 documents over 12 years, and clients invested millions of dollars to buy a share of the collection. But the firm went bankrupt in 2015, after Gérard Lhéritier, Aristophil’s founder, was accused of running a Ponzi scheme. The company’s assets will be gradually liquidated over the next six years.

120 Days of Sodom was expected to sell for more than $7 million, but the French government ordered the manuscript to be removed from the auction, which is scheduled to begin tomorrow. André Breton’s Surrealist Manifesto, a 1924 treatise that defined the artistic movement, was also taken out of the sale.

Marquis de Sade, who lends his name to the term “sadism,” was an unabashed in his depravity. After numerous run-ins with the law for abusing prostitutes, he was imprisoned at the Vincennes dungeon in Paris in 1777. Three years earlier, as Tony Perrottet writes in a feature on Sade for Smithsonian Magazine, the aristocrat "committed one of his most disturbing crimes," trapping five young females and one male in his home and subjecting them to “six weeks of depredations.” 

In 1784, Sade was transferred to the Bastille, and it was there that he wrote 120 Days of Sodom on a roll made from scraps of parchment that he had smuggled into his cell. The feverish story follows four licentious aristocrats who imprison 28 teenagers and subject them to all manner of sexual torture before killing them. Sade proudly called it “the most impure tale that has ever been told since our world began,” according to Samuel of the Telegraph.

When revolutionaries stormed the Bastille in 1789, Sade was taken from his cell and moved to another prison. He was not able to bring 120 Days of Sodom with him, and later wrote that he “shed tears of blood” because he believed the manuscript was lost. In fact, Sade’s tale had been taken from a crack in the wall of the prison, and it resurfaced in Berlin in 1904, eventually making its way back to France.

Over the years, Sade’s reputation has been rehabilitated somewhat in his native country, writes Perrottet. The Marquis’ defenders say he explored the hidden impulses of human sexuality long before Freud, that he was an early advocate for sexual and political freedom. But 120 Days of Sodom remains difficult for many to stomach. Sade biographer Francine du Plessix Gray, for instance, called the text “the crudest, most repellent fictional dystopia ever limned.”

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