Henry Kravis, co-chairman of KKR & Co., sued collector Donald L. Bryant Jr. claiming he reneged on an agreement to donate paintings by Jasper Johns to the Museum of Modern Art in New York.
Kravis said Bryant violated their agreement to buy “Tantric Detail I,” “Tantric Detail II,” and “Tantric Detail III,” and ultimately give them to the museum, after taking turns exhibiting them in their homes.
Bryant, a collector living in New York, is holding the paintings “hostage” until Kravis agrees to new terms under which the works wouldn’t be donated, the financier and his wife said yesterday in a suit filed in state court in Manhattan.
The set may be worth $15 million to $25 million, Todd Levin, an art consultant and director of the New York-based Levin Art Group, said in a telephone interview.
Kravis and his wife, Marie-Josee Kravis, are affirming their rights to possess the art and “ensuring that promises made to Jasper Johns and to MoMA by Mr. Bryant -- that these masterpieces will be donated to MoMA -- are upheld,” a lawyer representing the financier, Gregory Joseph, said in an e-mailed statement.
Bryant didn’t respond to a message seeking comment on the lawsuit.
The trio of works, completed in 1980 and 1981, has been widely exhibited and studied, MoMA said in an announcement of the promised gift in July 2008.
No value for the paintings was listed in the lawsuit. Kravis paid half of the purchase price, according to the complaint.
Considered one of the most important living American artists, Johns, 82, in the 1950s began painting images from popular culture, including the American flag, maps and targets.
In 2010, hedge fund founder Steven A. Cohen bought a 1958 “Flag” by Johns for about $110 million, the New York Times reported, citing unidentified art experts. The same year, Johns’s 1960-1966 American flag painting fetched $28.6 million at auction.
“Tantric Detail I,” “Tantric Detail II,” and “Tantric Detail III” show a cross-hatched pattern, John’s signature style for almost a decade starting in 1974. The lower half of each canvas has an image of a skull and the upper part depicts pair of testicles.
“The overt sexuality is unusual for Jasper Johns,” Levin said. “If there’s a figurative element in his work, it’s usually used as a symbol. In this case, it really is a skull and a pair of balls.”
Marie-Josee Kravis is president of MoMA’s board of trustees, according to the museum website. Bryant was a trustee when the gift was announced and has since left the board. Margaret Doyle, a museum spokeswoman, declined to comment today on the suit.
In November, Bryant sold Andy Warhol’s 1966 portrait of leather-clad Marlon Brando on a motorcycle at Christie’s where it fetched $23.7 million. He paid $5 million for the work in 2003.
The Kravises asked in his suit that Bryant be ordered to turn the trio of the Johns works over to them and fulfill the previous agreement to offer the paintings as a gift.
The agreement obliges Bryant and the Kravises to bequeath the pictures to the museum or donate them while living, according to the complaint. Until then each was to have alternating possession of all three for a calendar year at a time.
“Mr. Bryant now refuses to transfer the art works to Mr. and Mrs. Kravis in accordance with their agreements and consistent with their uniform past practice,” according to the complaint. “Instead, as a condition to parting even temporarily with the art works, Mr. Bryant has demanded a new agreement” that would, “repudiate the promised gift of the Art Works to MoMA.”
The case is Kravis v. Bryant, 150705-2013, New York State Supreme Court, New York County (Manhattan).