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Top-earning dead celebrities

By Peter Kafka, Forbes
October 28, 2005 14:03 IST

They're famous across the globe. Their work is treasured by millions. And they're rolling in cash--they just can't spend any of it.

The 13 members of our annual Top-Earning Dead Celebrities list brought in a collective $186 million in the last year. They, or more accurately, their estates, earned that money by selling their work -- both written and recorded -- or just the rights to use their likenesses on T-shirts, posters or in advertisements. Sometimes, their life stories themselves are worth something: Ray Charles makes the list for the first time this year, in part because of income related to his 2004 biopic. Johnny Cash, who also makes his first appearance this year, has his own movie out in November.

13 top dead celebrities




Date of Death


Elvis Presley

$45 mn


Aug. 16, 1977


Charles Schulz

$35 mn


Aug. 16, 1977


John Lennon

$22 mn


Dec. 8, 1980


Andy Warhol

$16 mn


Feb. 22, 1987


Theodor "Dr. Seuss" Geisel

$10 mn


Sept. 24, 1991


Marlon Brando

$9 mn


July 1, 2004


Marilyn Monroe

$8 mn


Aug. 5, 1962


J.R.R. Tolkien

$8 mn


Sept. 2, 1973


George Harrison

$7 mn


Nov. 29, 2001


Johnny Cash

$7 mn


Sept. 12, 2003


Irving Berlin

$7 mn


Sept. 22, 1989


Bob Marley

$6 mn


May 11, 1981


Ray Charles

$6 mn


June 10, 2004


Most of the lucky 13 on our list are there year in and year out, with only slight changes in their annual income--the demand for Marilyn Monroe, for instance, remains fairly steady. Others see their relative fortunes rise and fall depending on whether Hollywood is throwing money their way--neither Theodor ("Dr. Seuss") Geisel nor J.R.R. Tolkien made the silver screen this year, and their income fell accordingly.

Slideshow: Thirteen top dead celebrities
William Shakespeare, millionaire

But there is increased competition for the right to represent rich, famous dead people. Indianapolis-based CMG Worldwide, which represents Monroe and James Dean, has long had much of the celebrity image and licensing business to itself. Now it is facing competition from image licensing company Corbis, owned by Microsoft co-founder Bill Gates. Earlier this year, Corbis purchased the Roger Richman Agency, a CMG rival, and hired Martin Cribbs, who had been in charge of licensing for Andy Warhol's estate.

Recently departed
The gravest graveyards

Meanwhile, entertainment mogul Robert Sillerman has made a $100 million bet on the future of Elvis Presley. His CKX purchased an 85% stake in the King's estate in February, and now plans to ramp up efforts to license and exploit the rock 'n' roll icon. Sillerman has already had some success: We estimate Elvis generated some $45 million in pretax earnings in the last year, up from $40 million the year before.

The numbers
Spookiest places to visit

Our earnings estimates cover the 12 months between October 2004 and October 2005. Our estimates measure pretax gross earnings before management fees and other expenses. In some cases, we are including proceeds from estate auctions. After all, Johnny Cash's possessions wouldn't have generated $3.9 million if they hadn't been owned by a country music legend.

Near misses
Ghost writers

But a one-time sale of possessions won't land a dead celebrity on the list more than once. In order to make repeat visits, you need to have created something that the public will want continued access to. John Lennon's musical legacy will keep him atop the list for years to come, as will the "Peanuts" empire created by Charles Schulz.

As for the recently departed, look for writers like Arthur Miller and Hunter S. Thompson to make a run at the list, as new retrospectives and anthologies of their work are released in years to come. Also waiting offstage--Johnny Carson, whose 30-year legacy in late-night television could generate millions down the road. 

Reporting by Leah Hoffmann, Peter Kafka and Peter Newcomb

Peter Kafka, Forbes