“Once Upon a Time in Shaolin,” packaged in a custom silver-and-nickel case and accompanied by a 174-page leather-bound book, may be the most famous album ever possessed by one person.
Martin Shkreli, the disgraced former pharmaceuticals executive, was sentenced to seven years in prison for securities fraud in Brooklyn on Friday. Now the government will have its pick of a number of his assets to satisfy the $7.36 million judgment against him.
There is a brokerage account with $5 million in cash, shares in his company Vyera Pharmaceuticals, even a Picasso.
And there is an item that has been the subject of worldwide intrigue: the sole copy of the Wu-Tang Clan album “Once Upon a Time in Shaolin,” packaged in a custom silver-and-nickel case and accompanied by a 174-page leather-bound book. It may be the most famous album ever possessed by one person.
But what is it worth?
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The original price, set when Shkreli bought the album at auction three years ago, has never been publicly confirmed, though it has been reported — and stated more than once by Shkreli — as $2 million. If seized, the album would most likely be studied by government-appointed appraisers and offered at a public auction, said Charles A. Intriago, a former federal prosecutor who is an expert in financial crimes.
Determining the market value of “Once Upon a Time in Shaolin,” however, would be difficult, according to several experts in music memorabilia and art auctions. Among the complications are restrictions that the Wu-Tang Clan placed on the original sale and bizarre twists in Shkreli’s stewardship. The experts all doubted the album could yield anywhere near the $2 million it was apparently worth to Shkreli.
“Once Upon a Time in Shaolin” has a history that would probably worry any potential collector, said Jeff Gold, a top dealer in rock memorabilia.
Have any copies been made? How has it been stored? How many people have heard it? All those questions could weigh on a sale. Gold said an even greater concern was that last September, Shkreli offered the album on eBay, drawing bids of just over $1 million — half what he had supposedly paid for it. Shkreli was jailed during the auction and the sale was never consummated, but the low price and the canceled sale mean the album could now be tainted in the eyes of any serious collector.
“The bloom is off the rose,” Gold said.
The album’s provenance is what made it so exceptional. At a time when artists worry the digital economy has crushed the value of music, the Wu-Tang Clan — once hailed as the visionary kings of New York rap — decided to make “Once Upon a Time in Shaolin” as a one-of-a-kind art piece, wrapping it in mystery and pomp, and making its release a statement about music’s worth.
“We’re about to put out a piece of art like nobody else has done,” RZA, the group’s producer and chief spokesman, told Forbes magazine.
When the album was sold at auction in mid-2015, the buyer was kept secret and the price was given only as “in the millions.” At the time, Shkreli had little public profile, but that August — just as the deal was being finalized — he became an instant public villain for brazenly and unapologetically raising the price of Daraprim, a drug used to treat AIDS patients, from $13.50 a tablet to $750.
Weeks later, he was identified as the buyer of “Once Upon a Time in Shaolin.” Wu-Tang fans were horrified, but watched with fascination as Shkreli streamed snippets of the album online.
The album’s tangled history has only added to its fame, which might lift its value, according to Cyrus Bozorgmehr, who served as an adviser to the Wu-Tang Clan for the album’s release.
“Now that it’s become this pop-cultural football, it’s got an even greater degree of notoriety,” Bozorgmehr said. “There are potentially some people out there who would place a lot of value on that.”
In the sale contract, the Wu-Tang Clan prohibited the buyer from releasing it commercially for 88 years. The producers — RZA and Cilvaringz, a Dutch rapper and producer — also retain 50 percent of the album’s recording copyrights, according to Bozorgmehr, giving the group a level of control. (Shkreli has none of the songwriting rights, which are distinct.)
Intriago, the former prosecutor, said that with $5 million in cash, and other assets that may be easier to value, like the Picasso painting, the government might not seize the album, at least not to satisfy the $7.36 million criminal-forfeiture order. Among Shkreli’s listed assets is another mysterious piece of hip-hop history: a copy, in some form, of Lil Wayne’s long-delayed album “Tha Carter V.”