Wu-Tang Clan’s ambitious, one-of-a-kind secret album “Once Upon A Time in Shaolin” — of which only a single copy was produced — has been sold to an American buyer for an undisclosed figure that was in the millions, private auction house Paddle8 announced on Tuesday.
Earlier this year, the group announced that the 31-track double album, recorded in secret over a six-year period, would be sold privately rather than through an auction, as widely reported.
Paddle8 discretely vetted offers for the album, and over the past six months worked with representatives of the group to evaluate them. The buyer and sellers agreed to the sale in May and spent months finalizing contracts and devising new legal protections for the work, whose value depends on its singularity.
When the album was first announced more than a year ago, Wu-Tang’s de facto leader, RZA, said the vision for “Once Upon a Time in Shaolin" was a simple one: crafting a singular music experience.
Intrigue and speculation around the project (at one point RZA said the group received a $5-million offer for the work) overshadowed the release of the band's anniversary album, "A Better Tomorrow," which was surrounded with internal discord.
Stored in a vault at the Royal Mansour hotel in Marrakech, Morocco, since its completion in 2013, the album has been shrouded in secrecy since its inception.
RZA confirmed that the album features the group's surviving members, and a guest appearance from Cher, but little else is known about the music.
The sole copy is housed in an engraved silver-and-nickel box crafted by British Moroccan artist Yahya. It is accompanied by a 174-page manuscript containing lyrics, credits and anecdotes on the production of each song, printed on gilded Fedrigoni Marina parchment and encased in leather by a master bookbinder.
The goal behind the unique approach in releasing “Once Upon a Time in Shaolin,” RZA maintained, was to spark a debate about how music is appreciated in the era of mass production and market saturation.
Even the buyer, despite spending millions to purchase the work, is contractually bound to a great deal of secrecy.
When Paddle8 announced that it would be overseeing the sale, it was revealed that the purchaser would have to agree not to release it commercially for 88 years.
The condition of the sale means Wu-Tang will never release any of the content in any form to the public, and neither can the buyer -- at least not commercially.
Wu-Tang’s extensive contractual restriction voids previously reported plans for the album, which would have allowed the highest bidder to do whatever he or she wanted with the album.
“When I think of who will come to own ‘Once Upon a Time in Shaolin,’ I want them to recognize the historical value of what they're collecting,” RZA wrote on the Paddle8 website.
“I’m not one for hoping as a rule, but I really hope its guardian is the kind of person who finds appreciation and value in every artistic expression,” RZA continued. “Because this work was made to be appreciated.”
So why 88 years?
The time frame is, naturally, derived from Wu-Tang’s love of numbers. There were eight original members of the collective, for instance, and the auctioneer has the number in its name. Eight turned sideways is also the infinity symbol.
“For us it also addresses the issue of music’s longevity in a time of mass production and short attention spans,” RZA said on the site. “Nothing about this record revolves around short-term gains, but rather around the legacy of the music and the statement we’re making.”
Originally RZA said he hoped the buyer would display the album at museums and galleries, or take it on a “tour” where listeners pay a premium to hear the project.
Considering that the artwork is sold without copyright, broadcast rights, performers' consents and other reproduction rights, one workaround for any buyer could be to release the project to the public for free.
“When you buy a painting or a sculpture, you’re buying that piece rather than the right to replicate it. Owning a Picasso doesn’t mean you can sell prints or reproductions, but that you’re the sole owner of a unique original. And that’s what ‘Once Upon a Time in Shaolin’ is. It’s a unique original rather than a master copy of an album,” RZA added.
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