Art market

World's largest collection of manuscripts from bankrupt firm Aristophil to be sold in Paris

Auctioneer Claude Aguttes will sell the collection of historic books and manuscripts across 300 sales over at least six years as part of liquidation

Marquis de Sade’s manuscript of 120 Days of Sodom (est €4m-€6m) Aguttes

The sale of the most important private stock of manuscripts in the world will start on 20 December at the Drouot auction house in Paris. The first auction will include masterpieces such as Marquis de Sade’s manuscript of 120 Days of Sodom (est €4m-€6m) and the Surrealist Manifesto released by André Breton in 1924. The sale also includes the manuscript of Poisson Soluble, Breton’s first experience in ‘automatic writing’, and his second Manifesto of 1930. The whole series is estimated at €4.5-€5.5m.

It will take more than 300 sales over at least six years to liquidate the collections of the French company Aristophil, which purchased some 135,000 pieces over 12 years. The firm went bankrupt in 2015, after its founder, the dealer Gérard Lhéritier, accused of running a Ponzi scheme, was charged with fraud and money laundering. It is reported 18,000 clients invested around €850m to buy a share of his collections. Lhéritier denies all accusations and a criminal investigation is ongoing.

The start of the liquidation is to be announced on Tuesday, 14 November, by Paris's commercial court and auctioneer Claude Aguttes, who is handling the inventory and coordination of the sales at Drouot. Sotheby’s and others had proposed to auction the most prestigious lots, but the court chose an auctioneer who was ready to take the entire stock.

This opening sale is gives a flavour of the wide variety of objects that were handled by Aristophil. It includes manuscripts of novels by Honoré de Balzac and Alexandre Dumas, a 41-page account of the sinking of the Titanic by Helen Churchill Candee (est €300,000-€400,000), music manuscripts by Mozart and Strauss, letters signed by Napoleon, Einstein, Dostoyevsky and Stendhal, and original editions of Proust and Lautreamont. The oldest is a 15th-century translation in French of Alexander the Great’s biography by Quintus Curtius (est €300,000-€500,000).

Quinte Curce Aguttes

There are also landscapes painted by Raoul Dufy, photographs by Jacques-Henri Lartigue, drawings by Parmigianino, Boucher, Piranese, Tiepolo and Warhol, and even a glove belonging to Napoleon and a lock of his hair. A letter written by the 26th US president Theodore ‘Teddy’ Roosevelt, a sketch by Federico Fellini, and Serge Diaghilev’s business cards are all included in the auction with estimates at less than €1,000.

The sale is estimated to raise between €12m and €16m, a third of which is expected to come from the de Sade manuscript. The Marquis wrote 120 Days of Sodom in tiny characters on a scroll hidden in his cell in the Bastille. It was stolen from Nathalie de Noailles in 1982, before being smuggled to Switzerland. Lhéritier says he spent €7m on its acquisition.

Aristophil's clients might well lose most of their savings. Experts expect the sale of this huge stock to weigh even more on a market that already shows signs of serious decline after the withdrawal of its major actor. “There is no way today to have the faintest idea of its total value,” Aguttes says.