Our enduring obsession with cash and who’s got it, our love of celebrity, and macabre fascination with their death, combine splendidly in Forbes’ annual list of the Top-Earning Dead Celebrities. Satisfying a sort of pecuniary prurience, each year the publishers synonymous with wealth rate the least poor of the poor dead. Forbes reports that the collective earnings of the 13 iconic figures on the 2009 list grossed at around $866 million, but it’s more difficult to say what the list itself amounts to. Perhaps, simply, that death is lucrative. Or at least, it is when you expire with a Mondrian in the house, an unpublished novel on your hard drive, or a stake in Sony.
No. 13 Andy Warhol: $6 million
Pop artist, Andy Warhol, may have coined the expression ‘15 minutes of fame’, but his continuing appearance on rich lists long after his death in 1987, proves fame can be more lasting. Last year he was helped to the No. 13 spot by the appearance of his images on a Diane von Furstenberg swimwear line, as well as the opening of a Pepe Jeans shop dedicated entirely to Warhol-inspired denims.
No. 12 Aaron Spelling: $8 million
Aaron Spelling created a clutch of hit American shows with lasting appeal, including Dynasty and Starsky and Hutch. Since he died in 2006 his estate has swollen thanks, in part, to the CW Television Network’s recent airing of remakes of his shows Beverly Hills 90210 and Melrose Place. Yet for his daughter, the actress Tori Spelling, and widow, Candy, the estate has spelt trouble. According to Forbes, it has been the cause of some mother and daughter tension, or, as they put it, ‘some nasty fights’.
No. 11 Jimi Hendrix: $8 million
Though the death of Jimi Hendrix in 1970 is thought to be drug related, the exact details remain unclear. More certain is the late electric guitarist’s place in rock history. In death, as in life, he has received many prestigious rock music awards, but perhaps the greatest testimony of his esteem is the ongoing sale of his records. In terms of his appearance on this list, a trademark infringement has helped. Forbes reported that the Hendrix estate, controlled by his sister, Janie, was awarded $3.2 million last year after businessman Craig Diffenback and Hendrix’s brother, Leon, created a product called Hendrix Electric Vodka. Which might have been fine, had Leon consulted his sister first.
No. 10 Michael Crichton: $9 million
The prolific author, director, producer and screenwriter who penned such high-grossing works as ER, Jurassic Park and Disclosure, joined a long list of posthumously successful writers after he lost his battle to cancer in 2008. His assistant discovered his latest book, Pirate Latitudes, after his death, and Steven Spielberg wasted no time in acquiring its film rights. Crichton’s first ever published novel was Odds On: with one unfinished novel found on his hard drive at the time of his death, it’s odds on he’ll be on this list again.
No. 9 Albert Einstein: $10 million
Albert Einstein once advised, ‘Try not to become a man of success, but rather a man of value.’ His regular ranking in Forbes’ ‘Lucky 13’ suggests he achieved both. The departed genius is as much a part of the collective consciousness as a McDonald’s happy meal – fitting then, that the fast food behemoth last year created an Einstein bobble-headed toy. With his estate benefiting from lending his name to a wealth of other products, as well as a recent venture into the videogames market, Einstein’s value is assured. His success is relative.
No. 8 Dr Seuss: $15 million
Just as Dr Seuss’s children’s fiction could deal with some heavyweight themes, its revenue, too, packs a punch. The author of best-selling books, including Cat in the Hat and Green Eggs and Ham, has accrued masses for his estate since his death in 1991. In 2008 alone he sold 5 million books, and with a 3-D animated version of his book The Lorax – which chronicles the plight of the environment – due to hit the silver screen in 2012, his wealth isn’t about to wane. The launch this year of a new science learning series called The Cat in the Hat Knows About That will also help.
No. 7 John Lennon: $15 million
Twenty-one years after the murder of John Lennon, there’s been little abatement of Beatlemania. Last year Electronic Arts and MTV Games released The Beatles: Rock Band, allowing fans to play along to a virtual version of the band, as well as download additional albums for $17. The sale last year of a re-mastered 16-disc box set further boosted the band’s earning power; the popularity of LOVE, the Las Vegas Cirque de Soleil show featuring Beatles’ music, proved that even if money can’t buy you love, LOVE can buy you money.
No. 6 Charles Schulz: $35 million
Another regular on the list is Charles Schulz, creator of popular comic strip Peanuts. Long after he succumbed, his much-loved characters Charlie Brown and Snoopy lived on, most recently appearing in a line of New Balance footwear. 2009 also saw all six of the Peanuts television specials appear on a single DVD for the first time, after Warner Brothers bought the catalogue from its long-time guardians, Paramount Pictures.
No. 5 J.R.R Tolkien: $50 million
J. R.R Tolkien’s books, The Hobbit and The Lord of the Rings may have imagined fictional histories and fantastical languages, but there is nothing imaginary about their appeal. Forbes cites a recently reached settlement between publisher HarperCollins and New Line Cinema over allegedly unpaid royalties from the Lord of the Rings movies, as being largely accountable for the author’s ranking last year. The release of the film The Hobbit, rumoured for 2011, may help keep the deceased author in the fellowship.
No. 4 Elvis Presley: $55 million
Elvis Presley earned an incredible $55 million last year, with Forbes claiming he ‘watched his income swell’. Either they believe in an afterlife, or the King ain’t dead, in which case why is he on this list? But the fact remains, Elvis’s estate rose $3 million in 2009 thanks to admissions to Graceland and a portfolio of licensing and merchandising deals, including one with Mattel: the toy manufacturer produced a Jailhouse Rock-themed Barbie doll. What else?
No. 3 Michael Jackson: $90 million
‘Nothing increases the value of an artist’s catalogue more than death.. an untimely death’, Barry Massarsky, music industry consultant, told Forbes last October. With Michael Jackson’s estate earning $90 million in the four months since the King of Pop died on June 25 2009, he’s got a point. In the weeks following his death Jackson earned millions from a hike in album and ringtone sales, and radio and music video airplay. In the future, the estate will benefit from the fact that, as well as owning the publishing rights to his own catalogue of music, Jackson had bought a stake in the Sony/ATV catalogue, which owns valuable Beatles material. His posthumous wealth is likely to be as insuperable as his place in pop history.
No. 2 Richard Rogers and Oscar Hammerstein: $235 million (combined)
The songs in Rodgers and Hammerstein’s popular Broadway musicals, including Oklahoma!, South Pacific, and The King and I, are cheerful and poetic. But the tune to which they made their millions last year is the prosaic catalogue licensing fee. Imagem Music Group reportedly bought The Rodgers and Hammerstein Organization and the rights to the duo’s creations for $200 million, leaving just the ownership of the pair’s individual works still up for grabs.
No. 1 Yves Saint Laurent: $350 million
Leading the dead rich pantheon is pant suit designer, Yves Saint Lauren. As well as founding his own eponymous fashion house during his lifetime, he and his partner, Pierre Berge, had created a vast personal collection of art and antiques. After Saint Lauren’s death in 2008 the collection went on sale at Christies last February, when aesthetes and art lovers flocked to buy Mondrians and Matisses they thought they’d never see. The proceeds were split between the Pierre Bergé-Yves Saint Laurent Foundation and an Aids research charity.