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Jasper Johns’ “Tantric Detail” Paintings Held Hostage and Subject of Suit

Who is Who In Kravis & Kravis v. Bryant
  • Henry Kravis — billionaire businessman, co-founder of New York-based private equity firm KKR & Co;
  • Marie-Josée Kravis — his wife, president of the Museum of Modern Art board of trustees;
  • Donald L. Bryant Jr. — art collector, founder and chairman emeritus of the Bryant Group, a St. Louis employee benefits firm;
  • Jasper Johns — famous American artist;
  • Tantric Detail ITantric Detail II and Tantric Detail III — three paintings by Jasper Johns;
  • Museum of Modern Art (MoMA) — just that.
  • Gregory P. Joseph — attorney for the Plaintiffs

Details of the Dispute

In 2008, Kravis and his wife together with Bryant purchased Johns’ Tantric Detail series with the understanding that the two families would share in the enjoyment of the paintings until they were donated to the Museum of Modern Art in New York. In July 2008, MoMA announced the acquisition of the works in a press release where it descried the painting as a “promised gift:”

“Tantric Detail I (1980), Tantric Detail II (1981), and Tantric Detail III (1981), 
by Jasper 

Johns (American, b. 1930), have been widely exhibited, analyzed, and studied, and are among 
the works that Johns has kept in his own collection. …  Together, they eloquently speak to the moment of Johns’s transition from a predominantly abstract practice toward one that bears subtle infusions of art-historical 
and personal references.  Bringing the number of paintings by Johns in the collection to 19, this 
trio complements the Museum’s already extraordinary holdings, especially as they specifically 
address the themes of transience and mortality also evoked in other works.  The paintings are a 
promised gift of MoMA trustee Donald L. Bryant, Jr. and Board President Marie-Josée Kravis and 
her husband Henry

Bryant was supposed to transfer possession of the paintings to Kravises on January 14, 2013 but he did not. Ten days later, on January 24, 2013, Kravises filed a lawsuit seeking specific performance on a contract.

In the papers filed in the Supreme Court of New York, Kravises allege that Bryant refused to honor the alternating ownership rights of Mr. Bryant and Mrs. and Mr. Kravis to periodic possession of the paintings prior to their donation to MoMA. In January of 2013 for the first time in five years, Bryant refused to comply with the terms of the recorded agreements and sought to renegotiate the future of the paintings by repudiating the promise of a gift to MoMA. Kravises allege that there are two written agreements memorializing the joint ownership and possession of “Tantric Detail(s).”

The agreement apparently contains the following sections:

This Agreement with Respect to Art Works (“Agreement”) dated as of January 1, 2009, acknowledges and memorializes the agreements between Donald L. Bryant, Jr. (“Mr. Bryant” or the “First Party”) and Marie-Josée Kravis and Henry R. Kravis (jointly, the “Second Party” or “Mr. and Mrs. Kravis”, and together with Bryant, “Donor Parties”) with regard to [the Art Works]. This agreement also acknowledges and memorializes the agreements between each Donor Party and Museum of Modern Art (“MoMA,” and together with the Donor Parties, the “Parties”).

The Donor Parties agree as follows: 1. The First Party [Mr. Bryant] had the right to physical possession of the Art Works until December 31, 2008. The Second Party [Mr. and Mrs. Kravis] will have such right on January 1, 2009 (or any other mutually-agreed date) (the “Transition Date”), and then the Donor Parties shall have alternating rights of possession every 12 months after the Transition Date.

… Each Donor Party irrevocably pledges (the “Pledge”) to cause to be transferred all of such Party’s right, title and interest, including copyright interest if any, in the Art Works to MoMA, either by way of (1) a gift during his or her lifetime or (2) a bequest under the Last Will and Testament or other testamentary instrument (“Will”) of Mr. Bryant and or the survivor of Mr. and Mrs. Kravis, respectively, provided that, at the time of such gift or bequest, (i) MoMA is an organization that is organized and operated for a purpose described in (x) Section 170(c) of the Internal Revenue Code of 1986, as amended (the “Code”) and (y) Code Sections 2055(a) and 2522 and (ii) additionally, if the transfer is a gift under Section II(A)(1), MoMA (x) is an organization that is described in Code Section 170(b)(1)(A) and (y) certifies that MoMA will use the Art Works in a manner related to and in furtherance of its charitable and educational purposes. . . . 

…The Pledge is binding upon each Donor Party’s applicable heirs, assigns, executors, administrators and other estate fiduciaries (“Related Parties”). A Donor Party’s failure to include a specific bequest of the Art Works to MoMA in its Will shall not release its Related Parties from the Donor Party’s obligations under Section II(A)(2). Furthermore, should either Mr. Bryant or both Mr. and Mrs. Kravis die without having completed all payments due Matthew Marks Gallery for each such Donor Parties’ respective 50% interest in the Art Works so as to vest title in said Donor Party, then such Donor Party’s Related Parties shall be legally bound to make such payments to complete the transfer of ownership to the Donor Party so that the Related Parties may effect the transfer of ownership of the Art Works to MoMA pursuant to the pledges referenced in the Agreement. *** E. Each Donor Party agrees that the Pledge is an irrevocable definite commitment to MoMA, and that MoMA is relying on the Pledge in a variety of ways, including without limitation: (a) MoMA’s decision not to acquire other works of art based on its expectation of receiving the Art Works; (b) MoMA’s ability to make the Pledge known to others in order to encourage them to make similar commitments; (c) MoMA’s conduct of scholarship about the Art Works; and (d) MoMA’s taking or failing to take any other actions in reliance upon the Pledge.

Complaint explains that the legal action was prompted by Bryant’s refusal to deliver the works to Kravises in January of 2013, as was promised. Kravises alleged that Bryant is holding the works “hostage.” They are asking the court to enjoin Bryant from violating Kravises rights to physical possession of the artworks and grant specific performance requiring Bryant to abide by the terms of the 2009 Agreement and honor the promise to gift his share of the art works to the Museum.
If Bryant does not comply and the court finds in favor of Kravises, Defendant should expect to pay the legal fees of the speedy law offices of Gregory P. Joseph. 

Source: Reuters; MoMA Press Release 2008.