Pop superstar Michael Jackson achieved a remarkable level of fame during his lifetime, which ended suddenly one year ago today. In the year since he died, Jackson has gotten even bigger.
Thanks to the shrewd management of the Jackson estate, the late singer's finances are in better shape than they were at the time of his death. Back then he was reportedly $500 million in debt. A compilation of his greatest hits, "Number Ones," was the third best-selling album of 2009. And This Is It, a documentary of Jackson's planned comeback concerts, has grossed more than $260 million.
In April, the Jackson estate signed a deal with Cirque du Soleil for a series of performances by the acrobatic troupe based on Jackson's music. Neverland, the singer's Santa Barbara, Calif. ranch that he struggled for years to hold onto, now apparently is not for sale, according to a person familiar with the matter. Experts figure that the estate of the late singer has grossed about $250 million over the past year. (Billboard's widely quoted $1 billion estimate is wrong because it includes earnings for Jackson films and other merchandise that will not line the coffers of the Jackson Estate, the person said.)
A Famously Voracious Collector
The turnaround in Jackson's fortunes has been remarkable. While alive, the singer was a voracious collector of everything from Hollywood memorabilia (he bought the Best Picture Oscar awarded to "Gone With the Wind" in 1999 for $1.54 million) to fine arts and antiques. He also attempted to recreate a childhood he always said was denied him by adding animals (remember Bubbles the chimp) and circus rides to Neverland, which only added to suspicions about his relationships with young children. Though Jackson was cleared of child molestation charges, the legal fight left his reputation -- and his finances -- in tatters. He continued to live beyond his means and racked up bills that the Jackson Estate is starting to pay off.
"When he wanted something he would do whatever it took to get it whether he had the money for it or not, especially at auctions," says Darren Julien, head of Julien's Auctions, which is conducting an auction today of Jackson memorabilia and other items. "What he has left is one of the largest fan bases around the world."
At times Jackson overpaid wildly for items, especially when it became known that he was one of the bidders. Sometimes he would use friends such as David Guest, the ex-husband of Liza Minelli, to make purchases for him, says Gary Sohmers, a pop culture dealer who is also an appraiser on Antiques Roadshow. Additionally, Jackson was generous with his fans, signing countless autographs and giving away keepsakes such as the jacket he wore at his wedding to Debbie Rowe. The latest bid for the jacket was $7,000, according to Julien's Web site. A pair of sunglasses Jackson wore on stage and later gave to actor Corey Feldman were last bid on at $4,000.
In an email to DailyFinance, Feldman says he gave the sunglasses to a friend who decided to sell them and has no interest in profiting from his friendship with the singer.
"Michael gave me stuff all the time," he says. "I have lots of stuff from Neverland towel sets to sunglasses to placards he signed for me, to personal notes and letters. I would only sell that stuff if I had no other means to support my child.... Michael would be very pleased to see his stuff selling as it is... it keeps his legacy alive which is all he truly wanted."
The MJ Market Is Very Active
"There is way more Michael Jackson on the market than there was before," says Annie Balliro, the senior director of global brand philanthropy for Hard Rock International, whose Las Vegas hotel is hosting the Julien's auction. The owner of rock-n-roll themed restaurants and hotels holds about 50 pieces of Jackson memorabilia and is in the market for more items related to the iconic singer.
They are not alone. Chocolate served at Jackson's wedding to Lisa Marie Presley is a relative bargain with bidding last seen at $175. A print featuring drawings of Jackson at various stages of his career was last bid on at $2,250 with a signed letter attracting an offer of $600. Many of the items are attracting higher-than-expected prices, indicating the revived interest in his career following his death.
According to Sohmers, the Jackson memorabilia market was "pretty much the bottom of the barrel when he died." After his death, however, "vintage stuff was 10 times more expensive than it was before but it went away quick." To wit: A few months ago, the marriage license between Jackson and Presley fetched $80,000 at auction, more than double its pre-sale estimate and beating the $30,000 price tag for Graceland documents signed by Elvis Presley and his parents.
Jackson's Estate has been very selective in its merchandising deals and has been able to restructure and pay down debt. The singer's vast publishing holdings -- one report said he earned $75 million a year just from the rights to his songs, the Beatles, and others -- will bring a steady flow of money to the singer's children for decades to come.
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