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Meet the New Owners of the Wu-Tang Clan’s One-of-a-Kind Album

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Seven years ago, the Wu-Tang Clan’s one-of-a-kind album “Once Upon a Time in Shaolin” was created as a protest against the devaluation of music in the digital era. Before long it got caught up in a tale of capitalist villainy when it was purchased by Martin Shkreli, the price-gouging young pharmaceutical speculator who was later convicted of securities fraud.

Now the album has found yet another life on the frontier of digital art and cryptocurrency, having been sold for $4 million to PleasrDAO, a collective that has existed for less than a year but has already built a reputation for acquiring high-profile digital works.

In a complex deal with multiple parties, one of whom remains unidentified, PleasrDAO acquired “Once Upon a Time” after its sale in July by the federal government, which had seized the album to satisfy the balance of a $7.4 million forfeiture money judgment against Mr. Shkreli that was part of his sentencing in 2018. (Mr. Shkreli is still serving out a seven-year prison sentence.)

When the United States Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York, in Brooklyn, announced the sale of “Once Upon a Time in Shaolin” this summer, no details about the buyer, or price, were disclosed; prosecutors said that information was confidential.

But PleasrDAO, which took possession of the album on Sept. 10 and is keeping it in a “vault” somewhere in New York City, has decided to come forward, to celebrate its trophy and announce its goal to ultimately, somehow, make the album more widely available for fans to hear — if, that is, it can convince RZA, the Wu-Tang’s leader, and his fellow producer Cilvaringz to allow it.

PleasrDAO’s Jamis Johnson described the purchase as appealing to the group’s interest in acquiring signature items of digital culture, as well as to a wider mission that it shares with many cryptocurrency champions: prying artistic creations from an exploitative, antiquated economic system and offering the promise of a fairer one.

“This album at its inception was a kind of protest against rent-seeking middlemen, people who are taking a cut away from the artist,” Mr. Johnson said in a video interview from his apartment in Brooklyn. “Crypto very much shares that same ethos.”

RZA, left, and Method Man of the Wu-Tang Clan. The New York rap group sold a single copy of “Once Upon a Time” in 2015.Credit…John Shearer/Invision,via Associated Press

Although “Once Upon a Time” predates the recent craze for NFTs — “nonfungible tokens,” or digital items created using blockchain computer code, preventing them from being duplicated and allowing their provenance to be tracked — the group’s goal of recapturing the value of artistic scarcity in the digital age has led it to become seen as a kind of precursor.

“The album itself is kind of the O.G. NFT,” said Mr. Johnson, 34, who was proudly sporting a Wu-Tang T-shirt.

To tie “Once Upon a Time” to the digital realm, an NFT was created to stand as the ownership deed for the physical album, said Peter Scoolidge, a lawyer who specializes in cryptocurrency and NFT deals and was involved in the transaction. The 74 members of PleasrDAO — the abbreviation in its name identifies it as a “decentralized autonomous organization” — share collective ownership of the NFT deed, and thus own the album.

As the owners, they can listen to the 31 tracks on its two CDs, ogle its engraved nickel-silver box and leaf through the leather-bound parchment book that are part of the item’s overall package. But, for now at least, PleasrDAO’s members are still bound by the original restrictions that RZA and Cilvaringz imposed on Mr. Shkreli, including that it cannot be released to the general public in any form until 2103 (88 years from its initial sale in 2015).

PleasrDAO has grand but loosely articulated ambitions to make the album more available to the public, perhaps through listening parties or gallery-style exhibitions, or even to expand ownership of the album to fans, although how that would work remains up in the air.

“We believe that we can do something with this piece,” Mr. Johnson said, “to enable it to be shared and ideally owned in part by fans and anyone in the world.”

Wu-Tang’s opinion of the deal is not entirely clear. The origin of “Once Upon a Time” has often been described as mostly involving RZA and Cilvaringz, a Dutch rapper and Wu-Tang fan who worked with RZA to conceptualize the album. RZA declined to comment, though Mr. Johnson said that PleasrDAO had been in touch with him.

Cilvaringz, whose real name is Tarik Azzougarh, has given his blessing. “We wanted to honor the NFT concept without breaking our own rules,” he said in a statement.

Cyrus Bozorgmehr, who served as an adviser to the Wu-Tang Clan for the album’s release and wrote a book about it, said in an interview that PleasrDAO, with its idealism and hunger for disruption, was the kind of buyer the group might approve of.

Mr. Shkreli was later convicted of securities fraud, and his Wu-Tang album was seized by the government and sold off to pay off his monetary judgement.Credit…Sam Hodgson for The New York Times

“It’s not one dude in his lair stroking his cat while listening to the album,” Mr. Bozorgmehr said.

The complexity of the deal reflects the fact that cryptocurrencies remain outside the financial mainstream, especially when it comes to transactions with government agencies.

PleasrDAO paid the equivalent of $4 million in a cryptocurrency tied to the dollar, but the government requires standard U.S. currency. So the collective paid an intermediary represented by Mr. Scoolidge, the lawyer, which then paid the government what was “publicly known to be owed under the asset forfeiture order,” Mr. Scoolidge said — roughly $2.2 million, based on an accounting filed in court by prosecutors earlier this year.

“The parties in between that facilitated the sale took on the risks that the government wasn’t willing to take,” Mr. Scoolidge added.

Mr. Scoolidge said that his client, the intermediary, wishes to remain anonymous, and the government has not revealed to whom it sold the album or the price it received, citing a confidentiality agreement. Experts in asset forfeiture described that lack of disclosure as unusual for a public agency, even if the seized item was far more complex than the cars or other assets often seized by the government.

“In forfeiture law, the parties to a transaction involving forfeited property are pretty commonly available, for anybody from Mother Teresa to Don Corleone,” said Charles A. Intriago, a former federal prosecutor and a specialist in financial crimes. “There is no good public policy reason to protect the identity of the buyer or the amount paid.”

There may be no true comparable items to “Once Upon a Time” to gauge its price, and the sale contract meant that any buyer would have to abide by complex terms covering its intellectual property rights. Georgio Constantinou of 6 Agency, a specialist in NFT deals that sought out buyers for “Once Upon a Time,” said those restrictions turned away some deep-pocketed potential buyers.

When asked about the process behind the sale of the Wu-Tang Clan album, a spokesman for the Eastern District said only, “The United States has disposed of the album and the proceeds of its sale according to law.”

As for PleasrDAO, Mr. Johnson said that the group is taking its time to sort out what it could do with the album, but that it wanted to honor the Wu-Tang Clan’s wishes to protect its value and exclusivity while also finding a way to share it more widely.

“Our direction right now,” he said, “is to get this open to the whole world.”

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