Outbidding Britain's National Gallery, the Norton Simon Museum of Pasadena, Calif, yesterday paid $3.7 million at a London auction for "the Resurrection of Christ," a 15th-century painting by the Flemish master Dirk Bouts.

The price was unexpected. It exceeded by a factor of seven the presale estimate of $440,000. And it obliterated the previous auction record -- of $35,000 -- set in 1973 for a work by Bouts.

Neither the National Gallery nor Jennifer Jones, the American actress who was bidding on behalf of the art museum founded by her husband, would leave the field of battle. That competition made Bouts' "Resurrection" the third-most-expensive picture ever sold at auction.

Only two other paintings -- a portrait by Velazquez that went to the Metropolitan Museum of Art for $5.5 million in 1970 and Titian's "Death of Acteon," which sold for $4.3 million in 1971 -- have fetched higher prices at auction. A spokesman for Sotheby's, in whose crowded salesrooms the bidding war took place yesterday, called "The Resurrection" the most costly object the firm had ever sold.

"After the bidding hit 750,000 pounds (that is less than $2 million), the contest was between the National Gallery and ourselves" said Norton Simon yesterday. "Nowadays there are very few really great masterpieces available. And there are not very many out here on the West Coast."

Simon, who made his fortune by selling products such as Hunt's tomato catsup, Canada Dry ginger ale and Ohio wooden matches, said his "is the only California museum with the audacity to buy works as fine as this one. t

"Some years ago I could have bought the Leonardo portrait that eventually went to Washington. But I didn't. And once a work like that is gone you don't get another chance. The Norton Simon Museum can't possibly catch up with such institutions as the Met of the National Gallery. But if we do acquire a number of truly fine pictures we'll open the eyes of the public here."

The painter Dirk Bouts, whose first name is rendered variously as Dieric, Dirck or Dirc, is -- as so many painters of his time -- a figure of some mystery. He probably was born in Haarlem about 1415. Nobody is sure. He then moved to Louvain where he became the city painter in 1468. It is known that he married there one Catherine van der Bruggen. who bore the pleasing nickname "Catherine with the Money." Bouts died in 1475.

Most scholars of the period see Bouts as an intermediary between "first generation" Flemish masters, such as Jan van Eyck and Rogier van der Weyden, and the succeeding generation of Hugo van der Goes and Memling. d

The rigid, slender figures who populate Bouts' paintings look like Gothic statues that have come to life. They have about them an air of elegant reserve. Erwin Panofsky has called them "sign posts on the road into depth." They were painted shortly after the discovery that flat pictures could be made to look three-dimensonal.

Little is known about the history of "The Resurrection." Some historians think it was a part of a major altar-piece. It is thought that a crucifixion by Bouts, now in Brussels, was the central panel, and that "The Entombment" (owned by the National Gallery in London, which may explain their reluctance to stop bidding) formed the other wing. Simon said yesterday the painting came from a private European collection. "It was sold in London in 1958 to an Italian collection," he said. "It then found its way to Switzerland. I've been thinking about it every day for the past two months." s