She inherited the world’s largest Barbra Streisand collection

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Countless iterations of Barbra Streisand currently occupy six storage lockers in the Coachella Valley. There — sandwiched between corrugated metal walls and hefty layers of dust — the star’s iconic profile graces thousands of items, ranging from posters and record jackets to clocks and nesting dolls.

It’s not unusual for Streisand to be everywhere: She has sold 68.5 million albums over the course of her career and is one of just 24 people who have completed an EGOT. She’s currently promoting her new memoir, “My Name Is Barbra,” and infiltrating households through the news, public radio, late night TV, and plenty of magazines.

But these Barbras — the ones in the desert — are part of Louis Papalas’ personal collection.

Lou, who discovered Streisand in 1963 on “The Mike Douglas Show,” spent the last 60 years buying a myriad of items related to the iconic performer. But when Lou died earlier this year, his youngest daughter, Mara, inherited what’s known to be the world’s largest collection of Streisand memorabilia. Though Mara recently cataloged more than 12,000 items, the estimated size of the collection has ranged from 50,000 to 100,000 items over the years.

“For 20 years, I knew, ‘I’m gonna have to handle this,’” Mara said, as we sat inside one of Lou’s former storage units. “It’s not me, but I get it. I understand his genius-slash-brilliance-slash-dreams.”

Mara Papalas holds a Life magazine cover depicting Barbra Streisand from May 22, 1964.

(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

Lou and his wife lived in West Bloomfield, Mich., but enjoyed splitting their time between Michigan and Palm Desert, Calif. In 2010, after the death of a close friend’s parents, Mara moved to California as well.

Living closer to her parents than her two sisters, Mara decided to take a leave from her job when her father’s health started declining. And after he died, managing Lou’s collection became her full-time task.

As someone who isn’t a Streisand fanatic, Mara doesn’t have any interest in keeping the collection for herself. Though she appreciates her father’s love for collecting, she also inherited the steep monthly bill for his six storage units.

“This expense and the stress is not sitting pretty with me,” she said with a chuckle.

Box of records

Nine months after Lou’s death, Mara has nearly everything sorted and labeled. One unit functions as her office, with a few remaining Streisand posters hanging on the walls. Down the hall there are shelves, drawers and boxes labeled with subcategories or one-of-a-kind names: “concert wines,” “rare 45s,” “funny girl pregnant doll.”

Vintage bottles of Barbra Streisand Champagne and wine are part of Papalas' collection.

Vintage bottles of Barbra Streisand Champagne and wine are part of Papalas’ collection.

(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

“These catalogs go like 25 to 50 bucks apiece and I have boxes and boxes and boxes,” Mara said as we moved into the next unit, pointing out stacks of magazines that featured Streisand over the years. “These are pretty cool. They’re all Barbra Streisand tiles — they’re all different. They’re kind of fun, there’s a whole box of ’em from England.”

As she rolled up each unit’s metal door, she rattled off the contents inside. While some items are labeled — like a “guaranteed authentic” coral-painted thumbnail-sized chunk of Streisand’s home that was removed following an earthquake on Jan. 17, 1994 — many things had to be identified by Mara and her father’s friends.

“This is sheet music; these are just clippings; rolled posters here; magazines; posters; road shows; these are framed album covers he exhibited,” she said, pointing out different sections. “Magazines; more records; books; memorabilia; programs; CDs; VHS; stacking dolls. There’s a jack-in-the-box with a Barbra inside; a Fabergé-style egg.”

While Mara put a few items up for auction at Julien’s — including the dress Streisand wore in her 1965 TV special, “My Name Is Barbra” — she’s hoping that she won’t have to sell everything individually.

“I just don’t have any interest in getting on eBay,” she said. “I want somebody to buy this whole collection and then do something with it.”

Lou’s dream was to create a nonprofit Barbra Streisand museum and performing arts center, but it’s not hard to think of the many things an eclectic millionaire could do with a collection of this size. Mara hopes that a superfan will buy the whole lot to create anything from a Streisand museum to a bed-and-breakfast with movie-themed rooms.

“I feel like I’m sitting on a little avant-garde niche type of thing. Someone could do something really grand with this, and I would love it and [my dad] would love it,” she said. “But I don’t think that somebody’s me, because I don’t have the love of it. I have the love of him.”

Box of records

Born in 1946, Lou discovered Streisand when he was 17 and instinctively began his collection by stuffing magazine clippings about her into a dresser drawer. He spoke often about being in awe of Streisand’s beauty, talent and candor, but as his stash of “Barbrabilia” grew, he made it very clear that his love for collecting was stronger than his actual fanaticism.

An Italian reissue of "My Name Is Barbra" is just one of Papalas' many Streisand vinyls.

An Italian reissue of “My Name Is Barbra” is just one of Papalas’ many Streisand vinyls.

(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

“I am not driven to meet her, although I would be thrilled,” he told Riverside’s Press-Enterprise in 2005. “She’s very uncomfortable with adoration.”

His drawer expanded as he snagged magazines and attended concerts over the years, but his collection really took off in 1999, when he discovered a website called eBay.

“I began to bid daily, averaging at least 3 buys per day,” Lou wrote on his eBay profile at one point.

And as his collection grew, some of Lou’s dreams began to come true. He saw Streisand perform live for the first time in 1994, and began exhibiting his collection after he retired from the Ford Motor Co. in 2002.

Just a few years later, he started taking over a barber shop in Palm Springs at night. On lucky evenings, Lou would change the sign to read “Barbra Shop,” beckoning people inside to see busts of Babs, movie posters, record sleeves and other gems.

“I think we all first met Lou on eBay,” said PJ Miller, Lou’s friend of more than 20 years. “He was always bidding. He was consistent; he was there every day, every month, every year.”

Miller and Lou first talked in 2002, when she cold-called him to wish him luck with an event he was organizing for Streisand’s 60th birthday at Detroit’s Caucus Club. Even though Miller was calling from Phoenix, Lou wanted his fellow collector and superfan to feel included.

“He says, ‘I know you can’t be here, but I’m going to make you feel like you were,’” she recalled. “And about two weeks later, I get this big cardboard box full of napkins and confetti, and programs, and photographs and balloons.”

Soon enough, she started driving to Palm Desert every few months to help him organize his collection. Though she’d estimate the collection has 25,000 or 30,000 items, Miller is completely confident that Lou’s is the largest Streisand collection in the world.

“I’ve talked to many other collectors, and they have a lot of larger items but not as many of them,” Miller said. “Lou got down to the nitty-gritty and collected the lobby cards and the clippings and the magazines — the small paper items that get lost in floods, get lost in fires, get thrown out, and become more and more valuable over the years.”

But rather than flipping his purchases for a profit, Lou often hung on to his items or gave them away to other Streisand lovers.

“He sold pieces, but I think he gave away much more than he ever sold,” Miller said. “He would go to these fan events with a box of T-shirts, and no one ever left without a T-shirt from Lou.”

Box of records

Over the years, he got the chance to show parts of his collection in exhibits at the Hollywood Museum, the Bernard Museum of Judaica and the Jewish Museum of Florida-FIU, among others. Following his exhibit at the Hollywood Museum, Lou was invited to one of Streisand’s concerts in Arizona, where he was ushered backstage.

“When I met Barbra, she put her hand on her hip, looked me straight in the eyes and said in her Brooklyneese best, ‘So wher’d ya’ [sic] get all my stuff?’” Lou recalled in an interview.

Through collecting, Lou also became a de facto expert on anything related to Streisand. In 2022, he was even credited on Streisand’s album “Live at the Bon Soir” for sharing memorabilia with her team.

Perhaps Streisand would be interested in buying the collection back herself. Though Mara says she has talked with a few people from Streisand’s team, she’s unsure if they’d want to buy it from her. Streisand’s team did not respond to requests for comment for this story.

But of course, it’s hard to assign a price to Lou’s collection. Donating the whole thing to a nonprofit is always an option, but Mara and her family hope to recoup some of the costs that went into collecting and housing all of these items.

“I’ve done an enormous amount of work for this whole year. There’s an enormous amount spent on storage over the years; there’s an enormous amount spent on the purchases,” Mara said.

Though no one in her family is completely sure how much Lou spent on his collection over the years, Mara said that they generally estimate it cost him about a million dollars. But when it comes to figuring out the current value of all of these items, it’s hard to nail down specifics for a collection this large.

“People have told me I need to appraise it,” Mara said. “But appraisers want like, $80 to $300 an hour. And [with] the amount of hours they would need to do this, I can’t afford an appraisal.”

A colorful signed and framed copy of Barbra Streisand's 1974 album, "Butterfly," in a gold frame.

A signed and framed copy of Streisand’s 1974 album, “Butterfly,” is one of the few pieces that Mara is keeping in her own home.

(Gina Ferazzi / Los Angeles Times)

The list of items that she’ll keep for herself is short and sentimental: two signed albums — one with a note to her father — and a caricature of Lou sandwiched between Streisand and Omar Sharif in “Funny Girl.” Perhaps a few things will go to family members and Lou’s friends who also love Streisand, but Mara is hoping that someone buys the whole collection before she returns to work in February. (Anyone interested can contact Mara via email or at 760-229-7472.)

Though it’ll be a relief to shed the cost and effort of maintaining his six storage lockers, she knows that it’ll also mark the start of a new phase of grief.

“I am going to feel very weird about [the collection] when I no longer have it. This is his playground. This was his joy — he loved to be down here,” Mara said as we sat in Lou’s old office chairs.

“I have to always look at this as a blessing, no matter what,” she added. “It’s given me a good distraction; it’s given me a chance to try to make him proud.”

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