When Martin Shkreli, the disgraced former pharmaceuticals executive, is sentenced for securities fraud in Brooklyn on Friday, the government will have its pick of a number of his assets to satisfy the $7.36 million judgment against him.
There is a brokerage account with $5 million in cash, shares in his company Vyera Pharmaceuticals, even a Picasso.
And then there is an item that has been the subject of worldwide intrigue: the sole copy of the Wu-Tang Clan album “Once Upon a Time in Shaolin,” packaged in a custom silver-and-nickel case and accompanied by a 174-page leather-bound book. It may be the most famous album ever kept in the possession of just one person.
But what is it worth?
The original price, set when Mr. Shkreli bought the album at auction three years ago, has never been publicly confirmed, though it has been reported — and stated more than once by Mr. Shkreli — as $2 million. If seized, the album would most likely be studied by government-appointed appraisers and offered at a public auction, said Charles A. Intriago, a former federal prosecutor who is an expert in financial crimes. (Prosecutors in Mr. Shkreli’s case have also asked a federal judge to sentence him to no less than 15 years in prison.)
Determining the market value for “Once Upon a Time in Shaolin,” however, would be difficult, according to several experts in music memorabilia and art auctions contacted by The New York Times. Among the complications are the restrictions that the Wu-Tang Clan placed on the original sale and the bizarre twists in Mr. Shkreli’s stewardship. The experts all doubted that the album could yield anywhere near the $2 million it was apparently worth to Mr. Shkreli.
For an item whose worth depends on its uniqueness and safekeeping, “Once Upon a Time in Shaolin” has a history that would probably worry any potential collector, said Jeff Gold, a top dealer in rock memorabilia through his store Recordmecca who appraised the Bob Dylan Archive for its sale to institutions in Tulsa, Okla.
Have any copies been made? How has it been stored? How many people have heard it? All those questions could weigh on a sale. But Mr. Gold said an even greater concern was that last September, Mr. Shkreli offered the album on eBay, drawing bids of just over $1 million — half what he had supposedly paid for it. Mr. Shkreli was jailed in the midst of the auction and the sale was never consummated, but the low price and the canceled sale mean the album could now be tainted in the eyes of any serious collector.
“The bloom is off the rose,” Mr. Gold said.
The album’s provenance, of course, is what made it so exceptional in the first place. At a time when artists worry that the digital economy has crushed the value of music, the Wu-Tang Clan — once hailed as the visionary kings of New York rap — decided to make “Once Upon a Time in Shaolin” a one-of-a-kind art piece, wrapping it in mystery and pomp, and making its very release a statement about music’s worth.
“We’re about to put out a piece of art like nobody else has done,” RZA, the group’s producer and chief spokesman, told Forbes.
When the album was sold at auction in mid-2015, the buyer was kept secret and the price was given only as “in the millions.” At the time, Mr. Shkreli had little public profile, but that August — just as the deal was being finalized — he became an instant public villain for brazenly and unapologetically raising the price of Daraprim, a drug used to treat a rare disease from $13.50 a tablet to $750.
Weeks later, Mr. Shkreli was identified as the buyer of “Once Upon a Time in Shaolin.” Wu-Tang fans were horrified, but watched with fascination as Mr. Shkreli streamed snippets of the album online.
The album’s tangled history has only added to its fame, which might lift its value, according to Cyrus Bozorgmehr, who served as an adviser to the Wu-Tang Clan for the album’s release and wrote a book, “Once Upon a Time in Shaolin: The Untold Story of the Wu-Tang Clan’s Million-Dollar Secret Album, the Devaluation of Music, and America’s New Public Enemy No. 1.”
“Now that it’s become this pop-cultural football, it’s got an even greater degree of notoriety,” Mr. Bozorgmehr said in an interview. “There are potentially some people out there who would place a lot of value on that.”
According to Mr. Bozorgmehr, when Mr. Shkreli was arrested he even offered the album back to the Wu-Tang Clan. But the deal fell apart in negotiations because, Mr. Bozorgmehr said, “No one trusted Martin.”
In the sale contract, the Wu-Tang Clan prohibited the buyer from releasing it commercially for 88 years. The producers — RZA and Cilvaringz, a Dutch rapper and producer — also retain 50 percent of the album’s recording copyrights, according to Mr. Bozorgmehr, giving the group a level of control. (Mr. Shkreli has none of the songwriting rights, which are distinct.)
For serious collectors, those conditions may be a deterrent, said Giles Moon, the consignment director for music memorabilia at Heritage Auctions.
“If you’re buying with rights, then commercially there is a lot of potential,” Mr. Moon said. “But if you offer pieces without rights, whether in images, footage or recordings, then it’s severely diminished and limits the interest.”
Mr. Intriago, the former prosecutor, said that with $5 million in cash, and other assets that may be easier to value, like the Picasso painting, the government might not seize the album, at least not to satisfy the $7.36 million criminal forfeiture order. (Among his listed assets is another mysterious piece of hip-hop history: a copy, in some form, of Lil Wayne’s long-delayed album “Tha Carter V.”)
But there may be other penalties awaiting Mr. Shkreli.
“If on Friday the judge sentences him and imposes a criminal fine, which is separate and distinct from the criminal forfeiture,” Mr. Intriago said, “then he may be required by her to make statements immediately as to when he is going to pay that fine. The judge is not going to let him get away with an I.O.U.”
Such a fine would only increase the chances that “Once Upon a Time in Shaolin” ends up in a government auction. Mr. Gold, who has sold rarities like vinyl copies of Prince’s withdrawn original “Black Album,” for upward of $15,000, said that despite all his doubts, anything could happen in an auction.
“There are people,” he said, “for whom $1 million is a rounding error in their checking account.”