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Jacksonian Seizure: The Rise and Fall of Michael Jackson and His Investments Mirror Americans' Spendy Ways

Shaan Kokin/Julien’s Auctions

Children and optimists, avert your eyes for a moment, because we’ve got some bad news: Dreams die. As we’re now all too keenly aware, even the grandest, most luxurious palaces may, with a gentle nudge (or alleged diddle), collapse into a mound of rubble, an ocean of despair. After all, Bubbles the Chimp and his pop-star protector are required to pay their mortgages, too, lest Neverland be foreclosed and its assets auctioned off.

Life is hard, and economists searching for a symbol to the End of an Era need look no farther than Neverland Ranch, Michael Jackson’s 2,800-acre Valhalla outside Santa Barbara. Last year Jackson sold the ranch to investors in order to stave off foreclosure, and the artist recently announced that he’ll be auctioning off all the crap — er, magic — that he accumulated in and around the grand mansion and compound. With the spring sale, Jackson’s 27-year expansion is hitting its metaphorical nadir. In fact, tracing the 30-plus years of the King of Pop’s solo career alongside the American economy’s ups and downs is instructive. Do “Thriller” zombies frequent zombie banks?

After he ascended with his Jackson 5 brothers in the early 1970s, the singer’s solo career was slow to start; his success was threatened with Donny Osmond–esque irrelevancy during the flat times of the Carter administration and recession of the late 1970s. Off the Wall came out in 1979, the final year of Carter’s presidency — and three months before the beginning of the Iran hostage crisis. In the year following the record’s release, though, the Dow Jones Industrial Average jumped more than 10 percent.

By the summer of ’82 those gains had been lost. But with Reagan wrestling a hardened recession, Jackson released Thriller (and perfected the moonwalk), which caught the wave of “morning in America” and glided up the charts, holding hands with the Dow. The index nearly tripled over the next five years — the peak of Thriller and Jacko’s dominance. We were living large — at least, until Jackson released Bad, in August 1987, to mediocre reviews and less impressive sales. The stock-market crash of 1987 occurred a little more than a month later.

Jackson made some smart investments, though, the best of which were purchasing publishing rights to the Beatles catalog, and, in 1987, buying a big plot of land in Santa Barbara County for $17 million. That property today is worth about $100 million.

Record sales and sound investments financed Jackson and America as they cruised (in a golf-cart limousine) through the crazy 1990s — a time when, sure, we all made many regrettable and embarrassing (alleged) mistakes. But then, power, money and unchecked dominance can do that to a countr ... — er, pop star. Should it come as any surprise that Jackson released a disc called Invincible in fall 2001? The album, which cost a reported $30 million to make, had a miserable price-to-earnings ratio.

And all of us who bore witness to Michael Jackson’s unsettling shopping spree during Martin Bashir’s 2003 TV profile — when cameras followed Our Hero as he strolled through high-end Las Vegas casino shops tailor-made for the Idiot-Royalty Elite — know that Michael Jackson made some dumb decisions, too. And the evidence will be laid out at a five-day auction, conducted by Julien’s Auctions of Beverly Hills.

According to Julien’s description, the Neverland Ranch–liquidation sale will feature “an astounding array of fine & decorative art items, [from] paintings, life-size bronze and marble sculptures to memorabilia from the life & career of Michael Jackson. The auction also includes amusements, arcade games & Disneyana, entertainment memorabilia and garden statuary furniture.”

The Guardian has a slide show of the items running on its Web site, and the accumulation looks like a Buckingham Palace yard sale. There’s a portrait of Michael Jackson dressed as a Renaissance king; “a full-length red-velvet cape with detachable faux-ermine collar with gold-rope trim, gold cross brooch with faux-cabachon gems and satin lining”; a Sega flight-simulation game; “a marble chess table supported by four parcel-gilt horses on marble pillars ...”

Like King Tut’s treasures when they were unveiled in the 1970s, Michael Jackson’s Neverland stuff will tour the world, and will no doubt draw big crowds of curiosity seekers. When it arrives in Beverly Hills for a weeklong public viewing April 14 to 20, L.A. will have a chance to bid on Jackson’s acquisitions. Some will be awed at the gilded spoils within; others, however, will wonder how someone with access to the world’s smartest investment advisers could stand atop a seemingly limitless mound of cash and proceed to piss it away, with little regard for the future. After all, pop music, like prosperity, is ephemeral by its very nature. If we know anything by analyzing the pop charts, it’s that past success is no guarantee of future earnings.


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