Following “Pharma Bro” Martin Shkreli’s conviction in August for securities fraud, the Federal government is pursuing civil forfeiture of his assets. Among those assets is the sole copy of Wu-Tang Clan’s Once Upon a Time in Shaolin.
For those of you who don’t remember, or never knew, in 2014, RZA brought together all surviving members of the original Clan to create a new album. However, only one copy would be pressed and it would be sold at auction. It’d be easy to think this was a cynical money grab, but does the rumored sales price of $2-million dollars really amount to that much when split among so many members, several of whom have very successful solo careers in music and movies?
So what was it? A prank? Supposedly initially conceived as some sort of commentary on the art world’s ideas of value being based on the scarcity of unique artworks (in other words, acting as material illustration of Walter Benjamin’s 1935 essay “The Work of Art in the Age of Mechanical Reproduction”); among the initial stipulations of the sale is that the music could not be publicly released for 88 years, at which point it would be an “old master.”
Or was it just a slap in the face of all of Wu-Tang’s fans who would never get to hear the new album unless some rich white guy chose to share it with them for free (part of the deal was that the buyer could share the sounds for free, but not for profit).
Big surprise, the auction’s winner, Martin Shkreli, the guy who raised the cost of life-saving drugs by several thousand percent just because he could did not want to share. In fact, it seems quite possible he never even listened to the album in the few months before he would be arrested for and occupied by the securities fraud case. Now, following his conviction almost two years later, the government has listed the album among the assets it seeks to claim.
So what happens to property forfeited to the federal government? Undoubtedly, the case will be stuck in the courts for some time (possibly as long as the 88 years Wu-Tang initially stipulated before public release?), but what if the government does gain clear title? Does that make it public property? Should I start filling out my Freedom of Information Act request right now to beat the rush? Will they just auction it off to another rich white guy?
Or will it end up next to the Ark of the Covenant in some government warehouse?