Wu-Tang Clan’s One-of-a-Kind, $4 Million Album Gets Its First Museum Outing

“Pharma bro” Martin Shkreli bought the record, which the U.S. government later sold to PleasrDAO.

Wu-Tang Clan, The Wu—Once Upon a Time In Shaolin (2014). Courtesy of the artist, Pleasr and the Museum of Old and New Art (Mona). Photo: Jon Lynn.

Rap music fans the world over may want to check their frequent flyer accounts to see if they will cover a trip to Tasmania. The legendary double album The Wu—Once Upon a Time In Shaolin will soon be on display at the Museum of Old and New Art, and a select few ticket-holders will have the privilege of listening to some of its tracks. This is the public debut of the unique pressing of the record. 

Starting May 30 at 10 a.m. Australian time, the museum will issue a certain number of free tickets on its website for twice-daily events between June 15 and June 24; attendees will listen to a 30-minute mix in the museum’s own recording studio. 

The record’s backstory is nothing if not extremely colorful. The group offered the album, which RZA characterized as a work of modern art, for private sale via online auctioneer Paddle8 in 2015. At the time, it was safeguarded in an ornate silver box in Marrakech. RZA claimed that they had fielded a $5 million offer for the item, but in the end it reportedly sold for $2 million

The buyer, it later emerged, was none other than notorious pharma baron Martin Shkreli, who had, among other outrages, bought the rights to a life-saving AIDS drug and jacked up the price from from $13.50 to $750 a pill. Ever the provocateur, Shkreli said that he had bought the record not to listen to it but only to keep it from people. 

“RZA, the mastermind of Staten Island rap legends the Wu-Tang Clan, is a certified genius,” Artnet News’s Ben Davis wrote at the time. “But let’s all just agree that his attempt to tap the corrupt energies of the art market has spectacularly backfired, the equivalent of an Olympic diver leaping into an empty pool.”

Wu-Tang admitted that things hadn’t turned out quite like they planned.

“The sale of Once Upon a Time in Shaolin was agreed upon in May, well before Martin Skhreli’s [sic] business practices came to light,” the Wu said at the time. “We decided to give a significant portion of the proceeds to charity.”

The record was, incidentally (but interestingly for a project that revolves around the value of intellectual property), the subject of a lawsuit by artist Jason Koza, who brought a copyright infringement complaint against Shkreli and the rap collective after finding that the group had used his work without permission in the packaging for the unique record. The case was settled, the terms not disclosed. 

The U.S. government seized Once Upon a Time In Shaolin when Shkreli was convicted of fraud and offered it for sale in 2021. A cryptocurrency collective called PleasrDAO bought it for some $4 million and is lending it to the museum.

Eight men posing against a yellow backdrop.

GZA, Method Man, U-God, Ghostface Killah, Raekwon, Masta Killa, RZA, and Ol’ Dirty Bastard of Wu-Tang Clan, c. 1997. Photo: Bob Berg/Getty Images.

“10 years ago, the Wu-Tang Clan had a bold vision to make a single copy album as a work of fine art,” said the collective. “To ‘put it in an art gallery… make music become a living piece like a Mona Lisa or a scepter from Egypt.’ With this single work of art, the Wu-Tang Clan’s intention was to redefine the meaning of music ownership and value in a world of digital streaming and commodification of music. Pleasr is honored to partner with Mona to support RZA’s vision for Once Upon a Time in Shaolin.”

The album was recorded in secret over six years, with the digital master files deleted once the CDs were created. The terms of the sale indicated that it cannot be exploited commercially until 2103, but provides for listening parties; only a very few people have heard the album. 

The record will be on view as part of the upcoming exhibition “Namedropping,” whose theme is “status and the human pursuit—often fast and ferocious—of looking good in the eyes of others.” “Every once in a while, an object on this planet possesses mystical properties that transcend its material circumstances,” said Jarrod Rawlins, the museum’s director of curatorial affairs. “Once Upon a Time in Shaolin is more than just an album, so when I was thinking about status, and what a transcendent namedrop could be, I knew I had to get it into this exhibition.”

“Namedropping” will be on view at the Museum of Old and New Art in Tasmania, Australia, June 15, 2024–April 21, 2025.

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