Officials also designated André Breton’s “Surrealist Manifesto” as a national treasure.
Sade’s work, written on a scroll measuring three feet long and just four inches wide, “is a serious document of literature, of France’s literary history,” said Frédéric Castaing, an expert on 18th-century manuscripts and a member of a commission that advises the government on what works should be designated as national treasures.
“Without a doubt, it is a writing that challenges, that reaches into the depths of humanity, of the obscure,” Mr. Castaing said. Sade, he added, was one of France’s most influential authors of the 18th century, alongside Voltaire and Diderot, and inspired the Surrealist movement in the 20th century.
The Ministry of Culture said that the manuscript was “remarkable,” given the prison conditions in which it was written and its extraordinary journey through different hands. The ministry also pointed to the work’s “sulfurous reputation” and its influence on a number of 20th-century French authors.
The writing, it said, “is of great significance, as much as it is his first work as it is his most radical and most monumental.”
The manuscript of “120 Days of Sodom” was expected to go for up to 6 million euros ($7 million) on Wednesday, as part of a sale of historic manuscripts owned by Aristophil, a French investment firm whose founder was charged last year with operating one of the art world’s biggest scams.
The firm went bankrupt in 2015 after buying more than a hundred thousand manuscripts. The entire collection is being liquidated in a process that could take years.
Claude Aguttes, of the namesake auction house who is handling the sale, said the French government had agreed to buy the works by Sade and Breton “at international market rates.”
Mr. Aguttes said “120 Days of Sodom” was the last known work by Sade to be held in private hands. But that could change, he said, if the government fails to come up with the cash within the next 30 months, after which the manuscript’s sale could open up once again to foreign buyers.
Sade kept his manuscript hidden behind a rock in his cell in the Bastille but he was unable to smuggle it out with him when he was transferred to an asylum in 1789, a loss that caused him to weep “tears of blood,” according to scholars.
The document went through various hands, including French aristocrats, a German collector, and most recently a leading collector of erotica in Switzerland. The work and Sade’s other writings were banned from publication in France and overseas until the early 20th century, when a limited circulation found an audience in Surrealist circles and, surprisingly, the medical community.
“It is the most extraordinarily shocking thing ever written,” said Will McMorran, a lecturer at Queen Mary University of London who translated “120 Days of Sodom” into English in 2016, the first time in decades.
The tale tells about the 150 “passions” or perversions committed by a duke, a bishop, a banker and a judge, as told by four aging prostitutes. The acts, which involve a group of teenagers, increasingly turn violent and criminal, ending in some cases in murder. “The passions become more and more criminal,” said Mr. McMorran. In one instance, Sade “kills a girl by putting a firework up her bottom.”
Other acts involve children and pregnant women. “It is a very disturbing text,” he said.
“It is a remarkable transition for an author who was in prison” for his sexual aberrations, he added, “and whose work is now under lock and key.”
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