Most expensive album ever sold is Once Upon a Time in Shaolin, which is the seventh studio album by American hip hop group Wu-Tang Clan. It was limited to a single copy sold in 2015 and is the most expensive individual album ever sold.
The album was recorded in secret over six years. A single two-CD copy was pressed in 2014 and stored in a secured vault at the Royal Mansour Hotel in Marrakech, Morocco then auctioned through auction house Paddle8 in 2015. The winning bidder was American hedge fund and drug company manager Martin Shkreli, who was subsequently convicted of fraud. A legal agreement with the purchaser stipulates that the album cannot be commercially exploited until 2103, although it can be released free or played during listening parties.
In March 2018, following Shkreli’s conviction for securities fraud the previous year, a federal court seized assets belonging to him, including Once Upon a Time in Shaolin.
Wu-Tang Clan began working on Once Upon a Time in Shaolin in the late 2000s with producer Cilvaringz. It took about six years to complete and was recorded mostly in Marrakech, Morocco. It features the entire Wu-Tang Clan, plus rapper Redman, FC Barcelona soccer players, and two appearances from Cher.
Inspired by the success of Nipsey Hussle‘s mixtape Crenshaw, limited-edition copies of which sold for $100, Cilvaringz and co-producer RZA decided to create Once Upon A Time In Shaolin as an art object. Feeling the value of music had been cheapened by streaming and online piracy, they hoped to return music to the value of fine art. They wrote on their website.
The music industry is in crisis. The intrinsic value of music has been reduced to zero. Contemporary art is worth millions by virtue of its exclusivity. By adopting a 400-year-old Renaissance-style approach to music, offering it as a commissioned commodity. And allowing it to take a similar trajectory from creation to exhibition to sale. We hope to inspire and intensify urgent debates about the future of music.
The album was held in a silver jewel-encrusted box with a wax Wu-Tang Clan seal and leather-bound liner notes. On March 3, 2015, it was detained at JFK Airport for three hours while border control determined the contents of its box. In March 2015, Wu-Tang Clan exhibited the album for the only time, to a crowd of about 150 art collectors, dealers, and critics in Queens, New York. Attendees were searched for recording devices. About 13 minutes of the album were played to the audience.
Most expensive album ever sold at Auction
Once Upon A Time In Shaolin was auctioned through Paddle8 in 2015, which had previously sold works by artists including Jeff Koons, Julian Schnabel, Damien Hirst. The winning bid was accepted on May 3, 2015, followed by months of legal diligence. The sale was completed on August 26, 2015, at a price “in the millions” to a “private American collector”. A legal agreement stipulated that the album cannot be commercially exploited until 2103, although it can be released free or played at listening parties.
On December 9, Bloomberg Businessweek identified the buyer as Turing Pharmaceuticals CEO Martin Shkreli, who had paid $2 million. RZA said that the sale was agreed before Shkreli’s controversial price hike of the anti-infective agent Daraprim. He noted that the Wu-Tang Clan had donated a “significant portion” of the proceeds to charity upon learning the buyer’s identity, including the Children’s Literacy Society, the Hip Hop Chess Federation and TTAC, an institution focused on showcasing alternative cures for cancer. In January 2016, Shkreli told Vice that he had considered destroying the record or “installing it in some remote place so that people have to make a spiritual quest to listen”. He promised to release the album free if Donald Trump won the 2016 US presidential election. After Trump was elected, Shkreli streamed excerpts of the album online.
In September 2017, Shkreli attempted to sell Once Upon a Time in Shaolin on eBay, with the winning bid passing $1m. He was incarcerated on unrelated fraud counts before the sale could be completed. RZA said he disapproved of the sale: “I didn’t like the idea of him putting it on eBay. I think he could have got more than what he paid. I was actually impressed that within eight days, he got up to $1m in bidding. If it had been left a bit longer, no telling how far it would have gone.” RZA hoped to buy it himself but was contractually unable to.
In March 2018, following Shkreli’s conviction for fraud, a federal court seized assets belonging to him worth $7.36m, including Once Upon a Time in Shaolin. Shkreli’s lawyer Benjamin Brafman said the album was now “probably worthless”.
According to Complex, reporting from the exhibition in Queens, Once Upon a Time in Shaolin is “rich, layered, and sonically bombastic”, with a “rugged, hard-hitting sound” reminiscent of early Wu-Tang Clan albums. It begins with “ominous, foreboding” sounds of rain and thunder before rapper Raekwon begins the first verse. Other sounds include fire sirens, crowd applause, and a marching drum beat. Cher appears twice, as singer and actress, and closes the record with the “belted” words: “Wu-Tang baby, they rock the world”. Shkreli played the record during his interview with Vice writer Allie Conti, who said: “From what I heard, it was definitely better than their last album, although I wouldn’t say it’s worth $2 million necessarily, but it has made it the most expensive album ever sold”
Many fans reacted negatively to the news of the single-copy album, believing the album would not be available to the public until 2103. Wu-Tang member Method Man spoke out against the 88-year commercial ban, blaming fellow member RZA and producer Cilvaringz. RZA replied that the ban was necessary to maintain the integrity of the album as a work of art and to deflect any notions of a grand marketing or publicity stunt. According to him, the number 8 bears symbolic significance because there were eight original members of the Wu-Tang Clan. The numbers of the year 2015 add up to eight, Paddle8 has eight in its name, and a rotated eight is the symbol for infinity, which was used on their second album, Wu-Tang Forever.
In February 2016, artist Jason Koza sued RZA, Cilvaringz, Paddle8 and Shkreli in the US District Court for the Southern District of New York for the alleged unauthorized use of his artwork on the album.
MAIN PICTURE SOURCE: HMV