ART MARKET / Funny girl with serious tastes: Barbra Streisand's passion for art nouveau and deco began when she was only 16. Her impressive collection is on sale this week. Geraldine Norman reports

THE FILM star Barbra Streisand is selling a huge chunk of her art collection at Christie's in New York this week. The public knows a lot about her singing and her acting, a good deal about her lovers and her marriage to Elliot Gould, and something of her political idealism and devotion to liberal causes - she sang at President Clinton's inaugural concert - but, until now, they have known little about her devotion to art.

The Christie's auction on Thursday and Friday will reveal that she began by haunting junk shops and buying old clothes, then graduated to art nouveau and deco. These two styles were upgraded from second-hand junk to desirable antiques in the Sixties - at just the time when Barbra started collecting. As she grew richer, her hobby turned into an obsession; she bought things because she had to have them, not necessarily because she had a place to put them.

Now she is moving on again, developing a new passion for sophisticated 18th- and early 19th-century American furniture - which echoes British styles but has an elegance all of its own. She has also begun collecting American arts and crafts from the turn of the century and American folk art. As the new furnishings move in, the art nouveau and deco have had to move out.

Streisand says she started collecting at 16 when she left school and lived in tiny New York apartments while attempting to break into the singing and acting scene. She decorated them from thrift shops on Second and Ninth Avenues with 'hand-crafted, beautiful beaded bags that I hung on the walls, along with empty antique picture frames, satin shoes and gorgeous buckles from the Twenties'. She wore her second-hand clothes in her early performances; an 1890s lace jacket she wore in her first show led her mother to berate her for 'singing in her underwear'. 'To me, my antique clothing looked like masterpieces,' Streisand says.

In 1964 she discovered Lilian Nassau, one of the first and most influential dealers in art nouveau. 'I was 21 years old. I went into her shop on 57th Street and my eyes just bulged out.' With the first money she earned from Funny Girl, her first Broadway show, she bought a sinuous and elaborately inlaid German art nouveau desk. It cost her dollars 2,800 and, as she had nowhere to put it, she asked Nassau to store it for her. It is estimated to sell at between dollars 12,000 and dollars 18,000 ( pounds 8,333- pounds 12,500) on Thursday.

It wasn't until the late 1970s that she began to collect Tiffany glass in a big way - one of the star features of the auction. This time she started at the top by purchasing one of the rarest of all Tiffany lamps for dollars 55,000; it is expected to sell for between dollars 800,000 and dollars 1m ( pounds 550,000- pounds 680,000) at Christie's this time round. Streisand describes the 'Cobweb' lamp as 'kind of ugly- great': 'I thought it was fascinating but it was dollars 55,000. Whoever spent dollars 55,000 on a lamp?' There was another coming up for sale at Christie's three weeks after she found her 'Cobweb' in Nassau's basement and, to her delight, it sold for dollars 150,000. 'Just a year later, Christie's sold another 'Cobweb' lamp for nearly dollars 400,000 and I was even more thrilled.'

Christie's sale of 'The Barbra Streisand Collection' is a cross between a connoisseur's dispersal and a house clearance sale. Streisand says she wants to simplify her life and, with a typical dramatic flourish, describes the sale as 'a cleansing of the heart and the mind and the soul'.

In fact, she had reached a situation where she was over-housed. In addition to her principal residence in Beverly Hills, she had an apartment in New York and, until last year, a 20-acre estate by the beach in Malibu with no fewer than five houses on it. She had bought the Malibu estate in the Seventies in partnership with her then boyfriend, John Peters, a film producer. When they split up she bought his share; she used four of the houses herself (occasionally) and put a caretaker in the fifth.

Last year she donated the whole Malibu estate to the Santa Monica Mountains Conservancy for use as a conservation institute; it was valued at dollars 15m, though the donation didn't cost her that much since it was tax deductible. Christie's has most of the furnishings in the sale. Most significant are the contents of the house Streisand completely remodelled and turned into an art deco showpiece. It took her five years: 'I was in between movies and I needed to exercise my creativity,' she explains.

A whole collection of Lalique glass comes from this house, including a set of nine panels of bacchantes that Lalique made for the Cote d'Azur Pullman express (estimate dollars 20,000-dollars 25,000/ pounds 13,600- pounds 17,000). There is also a painting of Adam and Eve by Tamara de Lempicka, the portraitist who was the darling of the art deco period (estimate dollars 600,000-dollars 800,000/ pounds 400,000- pounds 545,000), a bronze of Femme et Gazelles made by Jacques Lipschitz in 1912 (dollars 150,000-dollars 200,000/ pounds 102,000- pounds 136,000) and even two period cars: a 1933 Dodge (dollars 15,000-dollars 20,000/ pounds 10,200- pounds 13,600) and a 1926 Rolls-Royce (dollars 50,000-dollars 65,000/ pounds 34,000- pounds 44,200).

The best of the decorative arts in the sale, however, belong to the art nouveau period and were recently turned out of Streisand's home in Beverly Hills. She is redecorating with simple geometric American arts and crafts furnishings - she spent dollars 363,000 on a Gustav Stickley sideboard in 1988, the highest auction price on record for American arts and crafts furniture.

Christie's is offering a wealth of sinuous furnishings by Louis Majorelle and Emile Galle, the two great art nouveau designers from Nancy. There is also wonderful Galle glass and pate de verre by a range of turn-of- the-century glassmakers - glass that is modelled like clay and then fired. And finally, 19 spectacular lots of Tiffany metalware and leaded glass, including the 'Cobweb' lamp and a 'Peony' lamp estimated at dollars 300,000-dollars 400,000 ( pounds 204,000- pounds 272,000).

Christie's have divided the sale into two sections. Part one contains all the connoisseur's items and takes place in their elegant Park Avenue auction room on Thursday afternoon. The following day another 356 lots will be offered at Christie's East, their downmarket saleroom, tucked away on the east side of town - roughly equivalent to Christie's South Kensington in London.

The latter contains secondary objects and reproduction pieces. A lot of them come from Streisand's New York apartment, which she cleaned out a couple of years ago to make room for her new collection of 18th-century furnishings. It is at this sale that prices will primarily reflect the Streisand magic.

Bidders are offered the chance to acquire the first antique Streisand purchased, a Victorian walnut davenport (estimate dollars 1,000-dollars 1,500/ pounds 680- pounds 1,020), her Yamaha white lacquered upright piano (estimate dollars 2,000-dollars 3,000/ pounds 1,360- pounds 2,040) and a small group of her designer clothes: a Zandra Rhodes silk jacket and matching skirt (estimate dollars 800-dollars 1,000/ pounds 545- pounds 680), a collection of beaded gowns, one by Arnold Scaasi (estimate dollars 2,000-dollars 3,000), and 'assorted lounging robes' (estimate dollars 200-dollars 400/ pounds 135- pounds 270).

Streisand has retained the passion for clothes that began in the New York thrift shops of her youth. While her art deco house in Malibu was designed as a guest house, the cupboards in each room contained colour co-ordinated period clothes - which she loves too much to sell. She also hoards all her old costumes. It is almost surprising that she has brought herself to part with these few modern outfits.

(Photographs omitted)

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