Strange things happen when governments seize assets through forfeiture. Things like this, the famous case of US vs. 594,464 Pounds of Salmon:

But no case has left a stranger paper trail than US vs Shkreli, as in Martin Shkreli, better known from the pre-Trump deluge of hate-reading in America as the “Pharma Bro.” Shkreli had made a fortune as founder of two hedge funds and as CEO of Retrophin, a pharmaceutical company. Shkreli earned his notoriety when he jacked the price of one of Retrophin’s anti-parasitic drugs, Daraprim, nearly 5600% from $13.50 per pill to $750 per pill.

It says something about the state of America that what made Shkreli infamous isn’t what sent him to jail. Instead, he was convicted in 2017 for securities fraud and sentenced to seven years in federal (aka no parole) prison.

Shkreli was also sentenced to pay a $7.4 million fine. In seizing Shkreli’s assets, prosecutors eventually got their hands on Once Upon a Time in Shaolin, the legendary Wu-Tang Clan album. Shkreli reportedly paid $2 million for the one-of-a-kind album-slash-artifact in 2015.

On Tuesday, the US Attorney’s Office for the Eastern District of New York issued a hurried press release announcing that earlier that day the United States government had sold Once Upon a Time in Shaolin. They also noted that a “confidentiality provision” had been entered which “protects information relating to the buyer and price.”

The government’s description of Once Upon a Time in Shaolin is probably the best one going:

At the time Shkreli purchased the Album in 2015, it was marketed as “both a work of art and an audio artifact.” The Album includes a hand-carved nickel-silver box as well as a leather-bound manuscript containing lyrics and a certificate of authenticity. The Album is subject to various restrictions, including those relating to the duplication of its sound recordings.In September 2017, just weeks after his conviction but before the district court-imposed forfeiture, Shkreli attempted to sell the Album through an on-line auction.

 

A private New York lawyer who claimed to handle the latest sale of the album, Peter Scoolidge, told CNBC today that he expected the buyer would reveal themselves in the next month or two. However, CNBC also noted that Scoolidge had a rather extensive history both with Wu-Tang Clan (he represented the album’s co-producer Tarik “Cilvaringz” Azzougarh) and Once Upon a Time in Shaolin in particular (he represented a Long Island artist who sued Shkreli, RZA, Cilvaringz and an online auction house over illustrations included in the “leather bound manuscript).

But Scoolidge’s involvement in the album sale, and his past history of Wu-Tang Clan-related issues involving the same record, raise the question of whether the group or individual members of it were involved in the purchase of their album back from the government.

 

Scoolidge declined comment to CNBC, but gave a pretty extensive interview to Vice, claiming he was a huge Wu-Tang Clan fan and had listened to the mysterious album in the interest of ensuring its authenticity:

“It didn’t disappoint at all. It was pretty reminiscent of the ‘90s stuff. The first album was really good. All the first solo albums were good, like, Return to the 36 Chambers, Liquid Swords, Ironman, Only Built 4 Cuban Linx, whatever,” he said. “And then they did some albums after that, that were perhaps not their best work. But this is like, up there with the best stuff.”

 

Vice failed to account for Scoolidge’s previous connections to legal matters involving Wu-Tang Clan, but did note Scoolidge wanted to emphasize that “The music is really good. I want to get that across.”

So did Wu-Tang Clan buy the album back from the government? Did Hipgnosis, the song management company currently gobbling up the publishing of tens of thousands of songs, pick it up as a trophy to their intellectual property dominance? Was it bought by Elon Musk as a practical joke or Jeff Bezos in an attempt to transform his reputation from evil overlord to gentle benefactor of the arts?

Telling the press that the mysterious buyer will reveal themselves within a short time is almost guaranteed to lead to frothy speculation. It’s Publicity 101, executed perfectly.

What makes little sense is why the US government — the sober suits of New York’s US Attorney’s office no less — would play a role in the PR campaign.

Photo: House Oversight & Reform Committee via Flickr.