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It’s a small work of art — precisely the size of an old Savarin coffee can jammed with artist’s paintbrushes — but in the history of postwar art and in the career of Jasper Johns, one of the most important artists of the last half century, it looms large.

Created in 1960, “Painted Bronze” has been a fixture for more than three decades at the Philadelphia Museum of Art, where it has been on long-term loan from Mr. Johns’s personal collection. But now it will migrate north to a permanent home at the Museum of Modern Art, which will receive the sculpture as a promised gift from the collectors Henry R. Kravis and his wife, Marie-Josée Kravis, the Museum of Modern Art’s president, who recently bought it.

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When Henry Kravis, the co-chairman of the global investment firm KKR & Co., and prominent art collector Donald L. Bryant Jr. purchased a triptych by Jasper Johns (b. 1930) in 2008, the duo agreed to take turns exhibiting the works in their homes before eventually donating them to the Museum of Modern Art in New York. In a lawsuit recently filed by Kravis and his wife, Marie-Josée, the couple claims that Bryant violated their agreement when he refused to hand the works over to them on January 14, 2013. The Kravises stated that Bryant is essentially holding the works hostage until their agreement is amended, nixing the pledge to donate the paintings.     

Considered one of the most important living American artists, Johns completed the three works titled Tantric Detail I, Tantric Detail II, and Tantric Detail III in 1980 and 1981. A powerful presence in the contemporary art market, Johns’ triptych is said to be worth between $15 million and $25 million. MoMA announced the Johns acquisition in a 2008 press release saying that the works were a “promised gift” from Bryant, who was one of the museum’s trustees at the time, Marie-Josée, the president of MoMA’s board of trustees, and her husband, Henry.

In their lawsuit, the Kravises ask that Bryant relinquish the works to them so that they can fulfill their vow to donate the paintings to MoMA.  

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