The new 2009 Forbes list of “Top Earning Dead Celebrities” has just been released. A Halloween tradition, this year’s list brings a few surprises along with some, but not all, of the usual suspects.
Of note are the significant numbers these personalities pulled in, with the first spot occupied by Yves Saint Lauren at a reported $350 million. A few years ago, $50 million would have guaranteed the top spot. This year, that amount would barely earn a spot in the top 5, with J.R.R. Tolkien holding the number five slot at a reported $50 million.
On closer examination, most of the larger-than-usual numbers are driven by one-time events. The Yves Saint Laurent entry was primarily a result of an auction of an art collection he owned with his partner. The runner-up, Richard Rodgers and Oscar Hammerstein, claim a reported $235 million as a result of a $200 million acquisition of the rights to Rodgers’ and Hammerstein’s creations by a Dutch pension fund. Michael Jackson pulls in at number three, with a reported $90 million stemming from earnings from a merchandise deal, the Sony film This Is It, and the significant increase in sales and airplay of his music catalog following his death. Elvis is the first perennial entry, claiming $55 million for the number four spot on the list. Tolkien’s $50 million, enough to pull in a top five entry, was the result of a settlement between the HarperCollins and New Line Cinema over a dispute over unpaid royalties.
In each of these cases, the circumstances will not repeat and many of these names will drop off. That said, I expect that Michael Jackson will be even higher on the list next year. J.R.R. Tolkien will no doubt reemerge after the release of the Lord of the Rings prequel, The Hobbit, in 2011.
Through it all, Elvis and Albert Einstein remain perennial entries, with John Lennon and Jimi Hendrix also proving to be safe bets. Three out of four of those are musicians, in part because the value of an iconic music catalog can serve as an almost inexhaustible asset with no pre-determined cap on potential earnings. I’ll leave it to you to figure out the past perennials who have dropped off the list, although at least a few of the comments on the Forbes website for this story have picked up on these absences.
The complete Forbes 2009 list can be accessed at: