Mystery and intrigue on two continents. Corporate maneuverings at the highest level. A scheduled major tour canceled. All in the course of several months. Sound like the jacket of a Sidney Sheldon novel? Not so.

All this describes the machinations behind Art Garfunkel's new album, "Watermark" (Columbia JC 34975), which was released this week. Again.

You see, "Watermark" has already led a strange double life that may make Garfunkel and Columbia Records the ultimate winners and force album collectors and Garfunkel fanatics to buy two albums to get practically the same material. The plot runs something like this:

In October, Columbia released the advance single, "Crying in My Sleep," a pretty lament from the "forthcoming" Garfunkel album. "Forthcomig" was thought to be within weeks, but there were delays and suddenly the heavy Christmas record rush was in high gear and Columbia decided to wait until after the first of the year to release the album. So, while America went without Garfunkel, England got him.

In December, the import of the British "Watermark" (CBS 86032) suddenly appeared in stores throughout the country and began selling rather heavily. This alarmed the people at Columbia, who do not make any money on imports sold here. There was some talk of rush-releasing the American version but those plans were scotched, primarily because the two albums would have competed with each other. Something else obviously needed to be done. Something was.

Garfunkel had scheduled a tour of American college campuses for November and December, ostensibly to plug "Watermark."When there was no AMerican "Watermark" to be plugged, the shows were canceled, but Columbia and Garfunkel decided to use the free time to spice up the delayed American release - to add something that would make the domestic product different from the foreign.

Garfunkel went back to A&R Recording Studios in New York City and word circulated that the American release would contain three new tracks, including one with Paul Simon.

In the meantime, "Crying in My Sleep" was not heavily promoted and allowed to slide away without much fanfare. After all, a big single from an album available only as an import would not help anyone and industry feeling was that large sales on the British copy would cut into domestic interest enough to hurt Garfunkel himself.

So now we have both "Watermarks" and a comparison shows that, as Firesign Theater once said, "Everything you know is wrong."

First, the American "Watermark" contains contains not three new tunes but one: "(What a) Wonderful World," a hit first for Sam Cooke (who co-wrote the song with Herb ALpert and Lou Adler in 1959) and later for Herman's Hermits. The cut does indeed include old buddy Simon and also throws in newer buddy James Taylor as an extra added attraction (Garfunkel appeared on Taylor's "In the Pocket" album). Three guesses what Columbia releases this week as "Watermark's" new single.

However, the new song is not in addition to the others on the British release, but is substituted for a Jum Webb composition, "Fingerpaint," a slow ballad featuring a richer-voiced Garfunkel. Result: Each album contains 12 songs.

The British copy has a decal on the jacket explaining that the record inside "features his hit single 'Crying in My Sleep,' which was not a hit in England or anywhere else. The American disc's jacket says, "This album was produced from December 7, 1976, through December 23, 1977." The original British jacket claim covers only through August 12.

And the music? Maybe the best overall effort Garfunkel has made. Like "Breakaway" (Columbia PC 33700), most of the compositions (all but two written by Webb) sound airy but superficial on first listening, but you find yourself drawn to them more and more as their subtleties sink in. "Watermark" also receives heavyweight support from the likes of David Crosby, Stephen Bishop, Little Feat's Bill Payne, the late Paul Desmond (whose sax solo fuses "Mr. Suck'n'Jive"), Joe Farrell, most members of Stuff, jazz vocalist Bob Dorough, the Chieftains (who hauntingly highlight "She Moved Through the Fair"), guitarist Pete Carr and studio superstars David Hood and Roger Hawkins, who one worked with Traffic, among others.

There is also the GarfunkelSimon-Taylor collaboration on "(What a) Wonderful World," produced by Simon's main man, Phil Ramone. (The rest of "Watermark" is produced by Garfunkel with help from Barry Beckett and string arrangements by Jimmie Haskell.) The title cut and "Someone Else (1958)" delve into sensitivity along the lines of "Second Avenue."

Now there is talk of a February-March tour, perhaps with Simon and several members of "Saturday Night Live" joining Garfunkel on some dates. Don't hold your breath.Garfunkel has never toured as a solo act despite three albums, so there may be more mystery and intrigue before all is settled. Meantime, stay tuned to "Watermark." It may not provide more international give and take, but it's worth the listen.