Barbra Streisand auction

Barbra Streisand during her short-lived beige period. (Courtesy of Barbra Streisand)

Barbra Streisand, a well-educated student of antiques and vintage decorative arts, has finally declared a major: "Eighteenth century American furniture and the design of the architects Greene and Greene are my special love," she says.

Think of it as a stylistic downsizing. Because her current three-house compound in Malibu is devoted to these particular genres, Streisand is auctioning nearly 500 items from other periods and styles -- Louis XV and XVI, Georgian, Art Nouveau, Stickley, Frank Lloyd Wright and Art Deco -- that once furnished homes in Beverly Hills, Malibu and Manhattan but have long been in storage.

Proceeds from the Oct. 17 and 18 Julien’s Auctions event will benefit the Streisand Foundation, a nonprofit that supports environmental and women's health programs. A free public exhibition of the pieces runs from today to Friday at the Beverly Hilton Hotel in Beverly Hills.

The legendary singer-actress-director, who recently released her 63rd album, "Love Is the Answer," phoned from Malibu to discuss her lifetime of collecting. That design journey has included a "Hello, Dolly" chair, a Victorian table that nearly became a sink, and paint colors that she says are as indescribable as "the taste of an avocado."

How did you get started as a collector?

When I was a teenager in New York, I was buying antique clothes. I still am. Of course, when I was buying them then, beautiful beaded leather shoes were $4. Now, they are $400. I don't know why I am so drawn to the designs of the past -- I must've lived before -- but I love when something stands the test of time, when it is so beautifully made you just have to stare at it. I remember thinking, "How could I ever have spent $45,000 for a Tiffany lamp?" But you look at it, and that just cannot be duplicated today. God is in the details, to me.

So do you consider Art Nouveau divine?

It has flowing lines, and women with flowing robes and flowing hair. It's like music. I will always love Guimard, the greatest French architect who did the Art Nouveau Metro signs outside the subway stations in Paris. In my new house, I built a street of little shops in the basement, and one of them is decorated in Art Nouveau.

You are selling some beautiful glass pieces in that style. What exactly are epergnes?

They're for flower arrangements. They have a group of delicately blown colored glass vases for showing off flowers with little baskets at the base, where you can either put more flowers or little candies. I think they are French in origin. Obviously the name is.

The auction catalog describes Lot 16 as "a Victorian Rococo papier mâché arm chair with mother of pearl inlay, gilt and paint decorated details." Where did that come from?

When we were making the film "Hello, Dolly" in 1968, they asked what kind of furnishing did I want in the trailer. I said I wanted [legendary actress] Sarah Bernhardt's railroad car. And, boy, that's what I got.

Is it hard parting with possessions that have so many memories that light the corners of your mind?

I have had some of these things in storage for so many years, it's ridiculous. They were things I loved and didn't want to get rid of it. And then I thought, "If you really can't use it, why not let someone else enjoy it?"

What was your first big decorating project?

In 1964, I moved from a cold-water flat with a bathtub in the kitchen on 3rd Avenue in New York to an apartment on Central Park West. I had it for around 35 years, and in that time, it went from French to English and finally became Americana. It also had a Stickley office and Josef Hoffmann furniture from the Viennese Secession.

The first session of the auction will feature furniture from your home on Carolwood Drive in Beverly Hills. What was that home like?

It was built in 1929, and it was Mediterranean. I don't like Mediterranean architecture, unless it's in the Mediterranean -- put it that way. The living room was really a library; all the walls were books. When I bought the house, it was a hodgepodge of a room. And then I designed the room around an Art Nouveau lamp that I thought was the most beautiful thing I've ever seen.

So you create interiors around an object rather than a theme?