The US government claims that the price it got for the legendary sole copy of Wu-Tang Clan’s Once Upon a Time in Shaolin is a “trade secret” that cannot be revealed, according to documents obtained by BuzzFeed News.
The album was originally purchased for about $2 million by pharmaceutical executive and hedge fund manager Martin Shkreli in 2015. When he was convicted of securities fraud in 2018 and ordered to forfeit $7.36 million, US marshals seized the album along with other assets.
Last July, the Justice Department announced it had found a buyer for the album but didn’t identify the individual or the price. Attorney Peter Scoolidge told the New York Times that digital art collective PleasrDAO purchased the album from the US government for $4 million. The documents say that the new buyers assume the same terms of Shkreli’s purchase agreement. They may display the presentation box embedded with the Wu-Tang Clan logo, which was designed by British Moroccan artist Yahya Rouach, but they are prohibited from making copies of the album.
According to a copy of the five-page purchase agreement, the album was "sealed with “tamper-proof evidence tape” and delivered to the new owners “in that state.”
The new documents, which were obtained through a Freedom of Information Act lawsuit, include dozens of previously undisclosed photographs of Once Upon a Time in Shaolin. The album, conceived by the rap group as a work of art, is held in a nickel silver box stored in a cedarwood box and covered in black cow leather with light beige velvet lining. It also includes a 175-page leather-bound lyric book and a gold-leafed certificate of authenticity. The government redacted images of the two CDs, the song titles and the lyric book citing "trade secrets."
Wu-Tang Clan said the choice to produce only one copy of Once Upon a Time in Shaolin was a form of protest of the way music had been devalued in the digital era.
Neither Scoolidge nor representatives for Wu-Tang Clan responded to a request for comment from BuzzFeed News. On March 9 2018, after Shkreli was ordered to forfeit the album, Scoolidge sent a letter to the federal prosecutor on the case that said “any transfer of ‘Once Upon a Time in Shaolin’ by Mr. Shkreli to any third party is restricted substantially by the terms of the September 3, 2015 Purchase Agreement through which Mr. Shrkeli obtained the work.”
At the time, Scoolidge represented Tarik “Cilvaringz” Azzougarh, a co-producer of the album who owned a 50 percent share of the master recordings. The letter said Azzourgarh was prepared to litigate to stop the forfeiture of Once Upon a Time in Shaolin because the transfer of the album to the US government violated the terms of the contract Shkreli entered into when he bought it. Azzourgarh's name was redacted from the letter but a source familiar with it confirmed it was him.
“The United States and its agencies cannot take greater property rights from Mr. Shkreli than were granted by my client in the Purchase Agreement,” said the letter released by the Justice Department Wednesday. Azzourgarh "is prepared to file a petition under the forfeiture order to protect his rights in the work. Please advise if you are open to potentially working out an agreement with my client and Mr. Shkreli that protects my client’s rights so that we can avoid the need to burden" the federal judge that ordered the forfeiture.
It appears Scoolidge and federal prosecutors were working on an agreement for more than a year. On Dec. 20, 2019, the associate general counsel in the US Attorney's Office for the Eastern District of New York sent Scoolidge a letter indicating the government was gearing up to sell Once Upon a Time in Shaolin and needed guidance on how to do that without violating the terms of Shkreli's original purchase agreement.
RZA, the de facto leader of the rap group, told a New York radio station last year he regretted selling the album to Shkreli. But since the government’s sale to PleasrDAO, RZA said he believes the album is in better hands.
Jason Leopold is a senior investigative reporter for BuzzFeed News and is based in Los Angeles. He is a 2018 Pulitzer finalist for international reporting, recipient of the IRE 2016 FOI award and a 2016 Newseum Institute National Freedom of Information Hall of Fame inductee.
Contact Jason Leopold at email@example.com.
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