Stolen painting back on view

News & Views

Staff & Wire Reports

This August 2017 photo shows "Woman-Ochre," a painting by Willem de Kooning, being readied for examination by University of Arizona Museum of Art staff Nathan Saxton, left, and Kristen Schmidt in Tucson, Ariz. More than 30 years after it was stolen from the museum, the recovered painting will be on display back where it all began. (Robert Demers/University of Arizona Communications via AP)

This August 2017 photo shows "Woman-Ochre," a painting by Willem de Kooning, being readied for examination by University of Arizona Museum of Art staff Nathan Saxton, left, and Kristen Schmidt in Tucson, Ariz. More than 30 years after it was stolen from the museum, the recovered painting will be on display back where it all began. (Robert Demers/University of Arizona Communications via AP)

Recovered de Kooning painting back in the spotlight


Associated Press

Friday, March 15

PHOENIX (AP) — More than 30 years after it was brazenly stolen from an Arizona museum, a painting by Willem de Kooning reportedly worth $100 million is going back in the public eye where it all began.

The University of Arizona Museum of Art in Tucson is throwing a fundraiser and homecoming party of sorts for “Woman-Ochre” on Sunday before it gets whisked away for months of restoration work. For some who worked at the museum when the painting was stolen in 1985, the celebration still seems surreal.

Lee Karpiscak, who was the curator of collections at the time, recalls the entire staff feeling devastated. “We tried to be realistic about it,” she said. “All these scenarios go through your head and make you crazy. We certainly hoped it would be returned.”

It was the morning after Thanksgiving when authorities said a man and a woman showed up at the museum. A security guard and students working the front desk were the only ones there, according to Karpiscak. Police said the woman distracted the guard with small-talk while the man cut the painting right out of the frame, leaving edges of the canvas still attached. The entire heist lasted around 15 minutes.

“How do you eat your Thanksgiving dinner knowing you’re going to steal a painting the next day?” Karpiscak said.

There was no security camera system set up then. The next few days were a flurry of activity as FBI agents interviewed the entire staff. But no significant leads developed. Occasionally the museum would get calls from people claiming to know where the painting was.

But Karpiscak said they were callers looking to get back at someone they didn’t like. On the theft’s 30th anniversary, the museum displayed the empty frame at a news conference in hopes of generating tips.

Then in 2017, a furniture and antiques dealer in Silver City, New Mexico, bought the painting at an estate sale. When researching the piece, he discovered an article about the theft. He notified the museum. A conservator with the university found it to be a perfect match.

The furniture dealer had gotten the painting from the estate of Jerry and Rita Alter. The art work had been hanging in their Cliff, New Mexico, home. Relatives also discovered a photo of the couple taken Thanksgiving Day 1985 in Tucson. Jerry Alter died in 2012 and his wife in 2017. Authorities have never publicly called them suspects.

Jill McCabe, a spokeswoman for the FBI in Phoenix, said an investigation remains ongoing so the agency could not comment.

Because of the investigation, it was not until last November that the FBI fully released the painting back to the museum, curator Olivia Miller said.

“We had it here but we weren’t allowed to move it or display it or do anything like that,” Miller said.

She said museum staffers have been overwhelmed “in a good way” with the anticipation of the painting being on view again — even if just for a day. And of course, there will be plenty of safeguards around the painting.

“Our security is much different than it was 1985,” Miller said. “Certainly at this event, we will definitely have extra eyes.”

The oil painting, which was donated to the museum in 1958, is one in an iconic series by the Dutch-American artist that explores the figure of a woman. The piece features the abstract expressionist’s signature broad paint strokes, depicting various colors across the female body.

De Kooning died in East Hampton, New York, in 1997 at the age of 92. He was part of the influential New York School of artists that also included Robert Motherwell, Jackson Pollock and Mark Rothko.

After Sunday, the painting will go to the Getty Center in Los Angeles where experts in art conservation and scientific analysis can work on fully restoring it. One of the main issues is if it’s possible to reattach the canvas to the fragments left behind when the perpetrator sliced the painting with a blade, Miller said.

“Because the cut is so clean, from my understanding, it makes it more difficult to reattach it,” she said.

Miller said once everything is completed, Getty plans to exhibit the painting next year. The plan is for the canvas, which is reportedly valued at more than $100 million, to return to Arizona in the fall of 2020.

“I think the emotions will really hit when it comes back from the Getty and it’s hanging here for a long time,” Miller said.

She wishes the museum director at the time of the theft, Peter Bermingham, were still alive to witness its return. Bermingham died in 2000.

“In the initial interviews…he said he was hopeful,” Miller said. “He thought we would eventually recover it and he was absolutely right.”

Follow Terry Tang on Twitter at

Mozambique mourns as Cyclone Idai’s toll rises above 300


Associated Press

Wednesday, March 20

CHIPINGE, Zimbabwe (AP) — Mozambique on Wednesday began three days of national mourning for more than 200 victims of Cyclone Idai, while the death toll rose over 100 in neighboring Zimbabwe from one of the most destructive storms to strike southern Africa in decades.

Torrential rains are expected to continue into Thursday and floodwaters are still rising, according to aid groups trying to get food, shelter and clothing to desperate survivors. It will be days before Mozambique’s inundated plains drain toward the Indian Ocean.

People have been reported clinging to rooftops and trees since the cyclone roared in over the weekend. The United Nations humanitarian office said the town of Buzi, with about 200,000 people, was at risk of becoming at least partially submerged.

“Floodwaters are predicted to rise significantly in the coming days and 350,000 people are at risk,” the U.N. office said.

Zimbabwean President Emmerson Mnangagwa received a somber welcome in the hard-hit mountain community of Chimanimani near the border with Mozambique. Zimbabwean officials have said about 350 people may have died.

Some bodies from Zimbabwe have been swept down the mountainside into Mozambique. “Some of the peasants in Mozambique were calling some of our people to say, ‘We see bodies, we believe those bodies are coming from Zimbabwe,’” said July Moyo, the minister of local government.

Mozambique’s President Filipe Nyusi said late Tuesday that more than 200 people were confirmed dead there. After flying over the affected region on Monday, he said he expected more than 1,000 deaths.

Aid workers were shocked as they arrived in the Mozambique port city of Beira, estimated to be 90 percent destroyed. The 500,000 residents of the city, which has some neighborhoods that are below sea level, are scrambling for food, fuel and medicine.

“The power of the cyclone is visible everywhere with shipping containers moved like little Lego blocks,” said Marc Nosbach, Mozambique director for the aid group CARE.

International aid has started trickling in.

“Everyone is doubling, tripling, quadrupling whatever they were planning” in terms of aid, said Caroline Haga of the Red Cross in Beira. “It’s much larger than anyone could ever anticipate.”

The United Arab Emirates will provide 18.3 million dirhams ($4.9 million) to Mozambique, Zimbabwe and Malawi, the Emirates News Agency reported, citing the Emirates Red Crescent.

Zimbabwe’s president said a planeload of aid from the UAE was expected to arrive in the capital, Harare, later Wednesday.

The chairman of the African Union Commission said it would provide $350,000 in immediate support to the countries.

The European Union has released 3.5 million euros ($3.9 million) in emergency aid, and Britain pledged up to 6 million pounds ($7.9 million). Tanzania’s military has sent 238 tons of food and medicine, and three Indian naval ships have been diverted to Beira to help with evacuations and other efforts.

Sacha Myers of the nonprofit Save the Children described overflowing rivers and dams, and said getting in aid was difficult, with roads and bridges washed away or submerged in the region.

Hunger and illness are growing concerns, with crops destroyed and waterborne diseases likely to spread.

“There are large areas where people are really finding it difficult to find sources of clean water,” said Gert Verdonck, the emergency coordinator with Doctors Without Borders in Beira. He added: “On top of all of that, there’s the issue of how to treat people who fall sick_with so many health centers damaged or destroyed.”

Associated Press writers Andrew Meldrum and Cara Anna in Johannesburg and Matt Sedensky in New York contributed.

Follow Africa news at

The Conversation

Tropical cyclone Idai: The storm that knew no boundaries

March 20, 2019

Author: Jennifer Fitchett, Senior Lecturer in Physical Geography, University of the Witwatersrand

Disclosure statement: Jennifer Fitchett receives funding from the DST-NRF Centre of Excellence for Palaeoscience.

Partners: University of the Witwatersrand provides support as a hosting partner of The Conversation AFRICA.

Tropical cyclone Idai has made headlines across southern Africa throughout the month of March. Lingering in the Mozambique Channel at tropical cyclone intensity for six days, the storm made landfall in Beira, Mozambique in the middle of the month, then tracked in a westerly direction until its dissipation.

The greatest impact of the storm was experienced on landfall. It caused flooding, excessive wind-speed and storm surge damage in the central region of Mozambique. Adjacent countries of Malawi and Zimbabwe experienced severe rainfall, flooding and damage from the high wind speed. Madagascar also experienced bouts of high rainfall during the storm’s pathway to Beira.

The flooding has left hundreds of thousands of people homeless and displaced across the region while the death toll has continued to rise in the week following landfall. The effects of the cyclone were felt as far south as South Africa and introduced rolling blackouts due to damaged transmission lines that supply the country with 1100 MW of power from Cahora Bassa in northern Mozambique.

Historically, nine storms that had reached tropical cyclone intensity made landfall on Mozambique. A larger number of weaker tropical systems, including tropical storms and depressions affect the region, with a total landfall of all tropical systems of 1.1 per annum.

The most severe tropical cyclone to make landfall in Mozambique was tropical cyclone Eline in February 2000. It had a category 4 intensity on landfall and resulted in 150 deaths, 1000 casualties from flooding, 300 000 people displaced and four ships sunk.

The storms off Africa’s east coast are weaker than their northern hemisphere counterparts. Category 4 and 5 tropical cyclones make landfall at a near-annual rate in the North Atlantic and North Pacific.

Why the wide impact

Why have so many countries been affected?

Tropical cyclones are large storm systems. Immediately surrounding the eye of the storm – a region of calm weather, no wind and no rain – are spirals of storm clouds that span a minimum radius of ~100km. These cloud bands represent the thunder storm conditions, with the rain and winds typical of a tropical cyclone.

A ~100km radius is typical of category 1 tropical cyclones, the lowest intensity ones. As the storms intensify to categories 2, 3, 4 and 5, the size increases significantly. This means that a high intensity storm, such as tropical cyclone Idai, has a range of impact significantly larger than the storm track that it follows.

In recent years concerns have been growing about the impact of climate change on cyclones. Research has shown that changes to the world’s temperature, as well as ocean warming, are responsible for an increase in the severity of tropical cyclones. This has recently been researched for the South Indian Ocean. As the ocean is warming, the region which experiences temperatures conducive to tropical cyclone formation is expanding and temperatures in the tropical regions are becoming warm enough for cyclone intensification. Category 5 tropical cyclones, which have been experienced in the North Atlantic for almost a century, started to occur in the South Indian Ocean since 1994, and have occurred increasingly frequently since then.

Rising sea temperatures are shaping tropical storms in southern Africa

This means that as climate change continues and intensifies, so too do these storms. This will mean a greater frequency of not only severe damage from storms, but damage over a larger region. In addition to the impact of warming on the storm intensity, climate warming has also been found to increase the expanse of the storms within any given intensity.

Cyclone Idai

So how intense was tropical cyclone Idai?

Storm track records, which include the geographic location of the storm at set time intervals, the wind speed and the atmospheric pressure, are documented by a number of regional climatological organisations. This data is synthesised by the National Oceanographic and Atmospheric Association, providing a useful resource for scientists to explore storm behaviour.

Tropical cyclones are classified on the basis of their wind speed and central pressure. The weakest storms to be classified as tropical cyclones – category 1 – have a minimum sustained wind speed of 119km/hr. At category 3 the storms have a minimum wind speed of 178 km/h. As the category increases, so too does the potential for damage. Category 1 storms are classified as resulting in dangerous winds that cause some damage, whereas category 3 storms are expected to cause devastating damage.

The history of tropical cyclone Idai is documented in these records. The cyclone reached category 3 intensity between 03:00-06:00 on the 11th March 2019, while positioned at its most easterly extent of the storm track. By 03:00 on the 12th March the storm had dissipated to category 2 intensity, and it fluctuated between intensities of categories 2 and 3 over the 36 hours that followed.

From noon on the 13th March the storm maintained a category 3 intensity which persisted until landfall on the 14th.

What needs to be done

Storms that affect many countries present particular challenges. They clearly have no regard for political boundaries. The fact that they affect lots of countries presents challenges in both preparing for storm events in a proactive way and responding to prevent loss of life and livelihood. This requires countries to communicate effectively with one another, to provide coherent messages about the forecasting of the storm track and potential damage, and to facilitate effective evacuations.

This storm provides a grim prospect of the future of tropical cyclones in a region under continued threat from climate change. Effective adaptation to minimise storm damage is essential in preparing the region for an increase in the severity of these storms. Disaster risk management plans are also very important to minimise the loss of life.

The Conversation

Niger has the world’s highest birth rate – and that may be a recipe for unrest

Updated March 21, 2019

Author: John F. May, Adjunct Professor, Georgetown University School of Nursing and Health Studies, Georgetown University

Disclosure statement: John F. May does not work for, consult, own shares in or receive funding from any company or organization that would benefit from this article, and has disclosed no relevant affiliations beyond their academic appointment.

The average woman in Niger has over seven children – nearly triple the average across developing countries.

While fertility levels have declined rapidly in most parts of the world, many countries in the sub-Saharan African region of the Sahel have seen their reproductive rates go down very slowly, and only very slightly.

The average woman in Niger, for example, still has 7.2 children, according to the Population Reference Bureau 2018 World Population Data Sheet. The average in developing countries is 2.6 children per woman.

With an annual growth rate of 3.8 percent, the world’s highest, Niger could see its population of 22.2 million nearly triple, to 63.1 million, by 2050. Half of all Nigeriens are under the age of 15 – a higher proportion than any other country.

Neighboring Nigeria and Mali have a youthful age structure similar to Niger’s.

As a demographer, I am concerned by the situation in the Sahel region. I have studied sub-Saharan Africa’s population growth for decades, both at the World Bank and as an academic, and I have learned that a surplus of young people can predict social unrest.

Security demographics

In theory, a young population should drive economic growth.

It can be a competitive advantage against Western countries that – like the United States, United Kingdom, France and Italy – have rapidly aging populations. Only 19 percent of the U.S. population is under 15.

But poor countries like those in Africa’s Sahel region are struggling to provide many young people with education, health care and, critically, jobs. The Sahel, a sub-Saharan region of Africa.

Niger is a peaceful and politically stable nation. Yet, despite robust economic growth since 2000, it remains very poor. Just under half of Niger’s booming population earns less than US $1.90 a day, and unemployment is very high.

Incomes in oil producer Nigeria are significantly higher – about $5,700 per person. But wealth is unevenly distributed, and about half of Nigeria’s population lives on less than $1.90 a day.

The countries of the Sahel are mostly rural. But, with so many young people, there are not enough agricultural jobs to go around. Many rural youth end up moving to cities looking for work – and find unemployment, instead.

Studies conducted in a number of Middle Eastern countries suggest that a very young age structure coupled with a lack of economic opportunity can be an explosive combination.

That’s why a surging population is a red flag for scholars of a new field called “demographic security.” Baby booms can increase a country’s risk of civil unrest, conflict – and, in extreme cases, these booms can even foment extremism.

The risk of youthful revolt is highest when elected leaders are unresponsive – even repressive or predatory – in the face of a frustrated and struggling population. Those were the ingredients for the 2010 revolt in Tunisia that sparked the first Arab Spring uprising.

In the most extreme cases, terrorism can take root after conflict erupts.

Discontent makes people more susceptible to extremist ideologies, while poverty helps terrorist groups enlist new recruits often by offering small monetary incentives. Political upheaval makes it easier for terrorist groups to infiltrate a country’s borders.

According to Serge Michailof in his book “Africanistan: Development or Jihad,” this is effectively how the Taliban took over Afghanistan after a Soviet occupation in the 1980s left the country leaderless and divided.

Danger in the Sahel

Now, I fear the same thing is happening in the Sahel.

A decade ago, this region of West Africa was a generally stable place. Nigeria, Mali and Niger all had secure borders, no civil conflict to speak of and absolutely no terrorism.

Today, Nigeria and Mali are rife with terrorist threats.

Boko Haram, which was founded in Nigeria in 2002 to “purify Islam in northern Nigeria,” has killed hundreds, perhaps thousands, of soldiers and civilians across the Sahel, abducted schoolgirls and executed lethal suicide attacks using women and children as human bombs.

As al-Qaida loses ground in the Middle East, it, too, has began to spread into Africa. The terrorist organization has an estimated several thousand fighters in North Africa and the Sahel, who have sometimes joined forces with Boko Haram.

Islamic State affiliates are also operating in West Africa.

Nigerien Interior Minister Mohamed Bazoum at a refugee camp in Diffa, Niger, in 2016 following attacks by Boko Haram.

Some of these groups have now penetrated once-peaceful Niger, infiltrating its borders from neighboring Nigeria and Mali. Refugees from those countries fleeing Boko Haram have also settled in refugee camps on Niger’s borders.

Niger faces an “existential threat” from militants, according to Minister of Defense Kalla Mountari, who spoke with Voice of America in late 2018.

The U.S. military has 800 troops stationed in Niger , where they provide counterterrorism training to local troops. It is the second-largest U.S. military deployment in sub-Saharan Africa, after Djibouti.

Challenges ahead

A youth bulge in a developing country with high unemployment does not automatically lead to terrorism.

Togo and Tanzania, for example, are low-income countries with high birth rates but relatively low levels of conflict.

What makes Niger and Mali different, in my assessment, is that their populations are growing much faster – faster than virtually anywhere else on Earth. The challenges their governments face in providing for their people are thus much more acute. They are also located next to the vast expanse of the Sahara desert, where terrorist groups transport weapons and operate almost freely, according to the U.S. State Department.

Nigerien soldiers at a British-led counterterrorism training in 2015.

In Nigeria’s case, extreme inequality, widespread poverty and poor governance compound the problem of youthful discontent, allowing terrorists to set up shop.

Gen. Michael V. Hayden, CIA director under President George W. Bush, foresaw today’s outbreak of terrorism in the Sahel.

In a 2008 speech delivered at Kansas State University, Hayden cited rapid population growth in “countries least able to sustain it” – specifically Niger, Nigeria and Yemen – as an urgent global concern.

In my experience, however, few leaders in the Sahel are prepared to grapple with the political difficulties of reining in population growth.

Most sub-Saharan African countries do have family planning policies aimed at curbing fertility. But triggering a rapid and significant fertility decline is a daunting task. Attitudes about family size and birth control are deeply ingrained, less than 30 percent of women of reproductive age use a modern contraceptive method and abortion access is extremely limited.

Creating real educational and employment opportunities for young people is an equally daunting challenge.

Unless more is done to promote family planning and boost economic prospects in the Sahel’s fastest-growing countries, I fear terrorism is the likely result.

This August 2017 photo shows "Woman-Ochre," a painting by Willem de Kooning, being readied for examination by University of Arizona Museum of Art staff Nathan Saxton, left, and Kristen Schmidt in Tucson, Ariz. More than 30 years after it was stolen from the museum, the recovered painting will be on display back where it all began. (Robert Demers/University of Arizona Communications via AP) August 2017 photo shows "Woman-Ochre," a painting by Willem de Kooning, being readied for examination by University of Arizona Museum of Art staff Nathan Saxton, left, and Kristen Schmidt in Tucson, Ariz. More than 30 years after it was stolen from the museum, the recovered painting will be on display back where it all began. (Robert Demers/University of Arizona Communications via AP)
News & Views

Staff & Wire Reports