Broke: artist who made history but didn't see the writing on the Wall

Imre Karacs on a graffitist's fight for a share of profits from the sale of the 'canvas' that divided Berlin

Former Wall painter, famous artist of Berlin," was how the blurb introduced Thierry Noir to the handful of the cognoscenti who had wandered into the opening of his exhibition on Thursday night. There stood a man clearly on the wrong side of his 15 minutes of fame, looking undernourished and down at heel. Surely he hasn't blown the royalties already?

For Noir's work, featuring a totem-pole shaped figure with exploding lips and a bulging eye, once sold for millions. How many millions, nobody can tell, but enough to make someone a small fortune. Suffice to say that even the photographer who put together a catalogue of Noir's oeuvre earned DM42,000 (pounds 14,800) on the project. But of that or any other proceeds, the 39-year-old Frenchman has seen nothing.

Admittedly, the painter used the wrong medium. But who was to know in April 1984 that the resilient structure that blotted the view from his window would not survive the decade? That is when he started to decorate the Wall, not so much to create art or make a statement, but to make his Kreuzberg slum habitable. The swirling curves of bright colours were an instant hit, attracting tourists in their thousands to gape at the coolest open-air show on Earth.

A star was born. Graffiti had become a genre, Noir a pioneering artist - founder of a school, no less - and commissions flooded in. In 1985 he was asked to apply his genius to the lavatory of a railway cafe. Two years later he became official wall painter on a Wim Wenders film set. By 1988 he was decorating the emergency exit of Berlin's Gloria cinema. And in all this time, he remained true to his metier, covering two and a half miles of the frontier with "Crocodile Man".

Then came November 1989. All Noir can remember of the euphoria is the ceaseless hammering outside his room - the Wall was five yards from his window. When the structure was finally breached, he rushed out with his spray cans and started painting the other side.

But the hammering never stopped, and soon the bulldozers would join in. His work was literally crumbling in front of his eyes. But then, just as everything seemed lost, a long section in Kreuzberg was rescued from the vandals. The East German authorities, betraying for the first and last time in their history a modicum of business sense, decided to flog the ruins to the decadent West.

The world's biggest mural was cut into 81 segments, catalogued, and put up for sale. Thirty-three of the segments were attributed to Thierry Noir, and 12 to his friend, Kiddy Citny. The auction was held in Monte Carlo in June 1990, and grossed at least DM1.5m. There must be, somewhere, a lot of satisfied Noir collectors, though the artist himself does not own a piece of his creation.

Nor does he have any of the money. It took until 1995 for Noir and Citny to establish their right to the royalties, having sued the authorities all the way to Germany's Supreme Court. By then, unfortunately, the company that had pocketed the receipts had gone bankrupt. So had East Germany and the officials who had organised the auction.

Noir and Citny then turned to the German bureaucrats who are legal heirs to the Communist regime. They discovered that the Finance Ministry had taken over the bank accounts of the abolished East German foreign trade company Limex, which had authorised the sale. The Finance Ministry, needless to say, would not part with a pfennig, so the matter is once again being dealt with by the two sides' learned friends.

"They will not accept that, as artists, we are entitled to be paid," Noir says. "They think we are nobodies; opportunists who simply want to get rich."

It has taken seven years to reach this impasse, and will take several months more to settle the claim. Next March a Berlin court is due to deliver its verdict. The lawyers think the state will have to pay, and the haggling now is over how much. The bureaucrats are holding out for 10 per cent of the DM1.5m, to be split between Noir and Citny, while the artists want the full whack.

"If we win I am going to throw a huge party," Noir promises. But even if he loses, he might still paint the town red.

peoplePerformer had recently been diagnosed with prostate cancer
The surrealist comedian at the Q Awards in 2010
Arts and Entertainment
Media baron Rupert Murdoch owns News Corps and 20th Century Fox
theatrePlaywright David Williamson is struggling to find a big name to star as the media mogul
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
ebooksAn unforgettable anthology of contemporary reportage
Russell Brand arriving for the book launch in East London
peopleRussell Brand cancels his book launch debate due to concerns about the make-up of the panel
Arts and Entertainment
JK Rowling will not be releasing a 'romance' novel anytime soon
Life and Style

Of all the computers Apple has ever made there’s only one that Steve Jobs had to sell his car to finance

Arts and Entertainment
Sarah Dales attempts to sell British Breeze in the luxury scent task
tvReview: 'Apprentice' candidates on the verge of tears as they were ejected from the boardroom
One of the 'princesses' in the video
videoYouTube reinstates sweary video after takedown for 'violating terms'
Latest stories from i100
Have you tried new the Independent Digital Edition apps?
Independent Dating

By clicking 'Search' you
are agreeing to our
Terms of Use.

iJobs Job Widget
iJobs General

Systems Tester - Functional/Non-Functional/Full Life Cycle

£20000 - £22000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Systems Tester - Functional/Non-Func...

SQL Developer with T-SQL, Watford, Hertfordshire - £350 - £360

£350 - £360 per day: Ashdown Group: SQL Developer with T-SQL, Watford, Hertfor...

Business Intelligence Consultant - Central London - £80,000

£65000 - £80000 per annum: Ashdown Group: Business Intelligence Consultant - C...

SEN Teaching Assistant

£70 - £85 per day: Randstad Education Group: SEN Teaching Assistants needed in...

Day In a Page

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?

A crime that reveals London's dark heart

How could three tourists have been battered within an inch of their lives by a burglar in a plush London hotel?
Meet 'Porridge' and 'Vampire': Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker

Lost in translation: Western monikers

Chinese state TV is offering advice for citizens picking a Western moniker. Simon Usborne, who met a 'Porridge' and a 'Vampire' while in China, can see the problem
Handy hacks that make life easier: New book reveals how to rid your inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone

Handy hacks that make life easier

New book reveals how to rid your email inbox of spam, protect your passwords and amplify your iPhone with a loo-roll
KidZania lets children try their hands at being a firefighter, doctor or factory worker for the day

KidZania: It's a small world

The new 'educational entertainment experience' in London's Shepherd's Bush will allow children to try out the jobs that are usually undertaken by adults, including firefighter, doctor or factory worker
Renée Zellweger's real crime has been to age in an industry that prizes women's youth over humanity

'Renée Zellweger's real crime was to age'

The actress's altered appearance raised eyebrows at Elle's Women in Hollywood awards on Monday
From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

Disney plans live-action remakes of animated classics

From Cinderella to The Jungle Book, Patrick Grafton-Green wonders if they can ever recapture the old magic
Thousands of teenagers to visit battlefields of the First World War in new Government scheme

Pupils to visit First World War battlefields

A new Government scheme aims to bring the the horrors of the conflict to life over the next five years
The 10 best smartphone accessories

Make the most of your mobile: 10 best smartphone accessories

Try these add-ons for everything from secret charging to making sure you never lose your keys again
Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time against Real Madrid: Was this shirt swapping the real reason?

Liverpool v Real Madrid

Mario Balotelli substituted at half-time. Was shirt swapping the real reason?
West Indies tour of India: Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Hurricane set to sweep Windies into the shadows

Decision to pull out of India tour leaves the WICB fighting for its existence with an off-field storm building
Indiana serial killer? Man arrested for murdering teenage prostitute confesses to six other murders - and police fear there could be many more

A new American serial killer?

Police fear man arrested for murder of teen prostitute could be responsible for killing spree dating back 20 years
Sweetie, the fake 10-year-old girl designed to catch online predators, claims her first scalp

Sting to trap paedophiles may not carry weight in UK courts

Computer image of ‘Sweetie’ represented entrapment, experts say
Fukushima nuclear crisis: Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on - and may never return home

Return to Fukushima – a land they will never call home again

Evacuees still stuck in cramped emergency housing three years on from nuclear disaster
Wildlife Photographer of the Year: Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize

Wildlife Photographer of the Year

Intimate image of resting lions claims top prize
Online petitions: Sign here to change the world

Want to change the world? Just sign here

The proliferation of online petitions allows us to register our protests at the touch of a button. But do they change anything?