This page provides indicative information about the estates
(assessed wealth at death) of novelists, composers, painters
and other creators.
It covers -
supplements the discussion elsewhere on this site regarding
the 'genius in the garret' rationale for copyright,
busking, corporate rights
ownership and literary best-sellers.
As with much of this site, it is a work in progress, with
information being added on an ongoing basis.
Commercially unrecognised (or underrecognised) artistic
talent and effort is a recurrent theme in popular culture,
mythologised by secondary schools and marketers. It is
clear that many painters, novelists, poets, composers
and other creators enjoyed little commercial success during
their lifetime - particularly if, like Modigliani and
Schiele, the life was short.
Some long-lived authors have enjoyed early success but
then fallen out of favour, for example cursed as a 'one
hit wonder', and died in what was euphemistically called
'reduced circumstances'. Others in retrospect have been
inadequately rewarded: a fortune to Vicki Baum, riches
for Ethel M Dell or Hugh Walpole, indigence for Christina
Stead and Djuna Barnes.
Some, such as Nat Gould, enjoyed a readership equally
only by Mao or Sidney Sheldon but died poor because they
have lived high and sold works outright rather than relying
Jane Austen is estimated to have received around £700
during her literary career (roughly £45,000 in today's
money), dwarfed by competitors such as Maria Edgeworth
(£11,000) and Frances Burney £4,000. Sir Walter Scott
made over £100,000. Giacomo Puccini was worth the equivalent
of £130 million at his death in 1924, somewhat less
than the several billion that enthusiasts have claimed
for mediaeval figures such as Thomas á Beckett.
making sense of the figures
The figures in the following page of this note are primarily
drawn from probate reports, ie official assessments of
the value of an individual's assets at the time of death.
Those assessments are indicative only; essentially they
cover wealth at the time of death rather than the individual's
earning power throughout a career.
They do not identify debts (which in some instances were
greater than the nominated assets) and outstanding tax
liabilities. Different nations have taxed real estate
and other assets at varying rates over time (eg higher
taxation in the UK during much of last century than in
The figures do not reflect intergenerational wealth transfers
prior to death, particularly gifting of real estate and
stocks to children in an effort to avoid punitive death
duties or assignment of copyrights to grandchildren and
other beneficiaries as a form of endowment.
The data should be approached with caution, as some figures
significantly overstate the rewards of creativity. Much
of the wealth of figures such as Mackellar for example
is attributable to inheritance and marriage, rather than
from copyright royalties.
The figures understate the subsequent value of literary
manuscripts and other items, which may be sold to collectors
or donated to an institution on a tax-deductible basis.
Finally, as biographies of figures such as Charles Dickens
and Mark Twain make clear, much of the wealth of celebrity
authors during the past 150 years has come from product
endorsements and the lecture circuit - busking
- rather than directly from royalties or outright sale
Purchasing power - the cost of acquiring and furnishing
"a room of one's own" - has varied over time
and affects any assessment of how much particular individuals
earnt and left. Singer Adelina Patti (1843-1919) for example
had an average income in London (ie when not touring)
of over £1,000 per month by 1869 and given low taxes
may be the highest paid singer in history.
Calculators for determining what a particular sum was
worth are highlighted here.
A sense of what artistic works and other collectibles
went for is provided in the chronology here.
points of reference
Disagreement about income inequality, social justice in
the distribution of assets (which often means the distribution
of opportunity) and the impact of particular taxation
mechanisms has spawned a huge literature. Works of particular
significance are highlighted elsewhere on this site as
part of the more detailed discussion of taxation,
human rights and
For economic elites see Men of Property: The Very
Wealthy in Britain Since the Industrial Revolution
(London: Social Affairs 2006) by William Rubinstein. Points
of entry to the literature on inequality include Who
Gets What? Analysing Economic Inequality in Australia
(Cambridge: Cambridge Uni Press 2007) by Frank Stilwell
& Kirrily Jordan and Distribution of personal
wealth in Britain (Cambridge: Cambridge Uni Press
1978) by Anthony Atkinson & Alan Harrison.
Another point of reference is provided in 'The wealth
of distinguished doctors: retrospective survey' article
by I McManus in British Medical Journal (2005)
1520-1523, which reports on changes in the wealth of "distinguished
doctors" in the UK between 1860 and 2001. It complements
Harold Perkin's The Third Revolution: Professional
Elites in the Modern World (London: Routledge 1996)
and The Rise of Professional Society: England since
1880 (London: Routledge 1989).
Works on the income of contemporary creators include -
Write Stuff: Employment and Earnings of Authors, 1970
to 1990 (1994) by Neil Alper & Gregory Wassall
Don’t Give Up Your Day Job: an economic study
of professional artists in Australia report
(2003) by David Throsby & Virginia Hollister
Empirical Evidence on Copyright Earnings (2006)
by Martin Kretschmer (PDF)
Earnings from Copyright and Non-Copyright Sources: A
Survey of 25,000 British and German Writers (2007)
by Martin Kretschmer & Philip Hardwick (PDF).
de suite (a resale royalty for visual artists) is discussed
here. Collective rights
administration (in particular copyright collecting societies)
is discussed here.
Pointers to literature on the mechanics of will-making
and probate are provided here.