"If the Munch goes for more than $3 million, it will be the most expensive 20th-century painting ever sold at auction," said Liz Shaw of Christie's, the Manhattan auctioneers. It didn't.

Picasso holds the 20th-century auction record still, but Edvard Munch's "Girls on a Bridge" (1902), which sold last night for $2.8 million, is now in second place.

Munch obsessively returned to the same seaside scene -- the same girls, the same looming linden tree, the same jutting bridge -- perhaps a dozen times between 1900 and 1935. Last night's slightly anti-climatic auction also evoked a sense of deja vu.

The same accents -- German, Japanese, Spanish, French -- were heard in the sales room. The same tailors and furriers who clothe the very rich were represented, too. The women there looked rich, the men appeared important and permanently tanned. Perhaps the most familiar aspect of last night's extravaganza was that peculiar mix of coy anonymity and garish self-promotion that nowadays marks most "major" auctions in New York.

The Munch was one of three "highly important modern paintings, the property of a private collector" offered at the sale. The unnamed seller was a man whose identity was known to everyone in the crowd of 750. Norton Simon, a man who rarely shuns publicity, was easily identified by the references to art texts and exhibitions sprinkled through the catalogue. The buyers -- an unidentified couple in early middle age -- were two of the most noticeable people in the room. The man, who wore a dark blue suit, lounged carelessly as he spent his millions. His smiling companion wore much gold, many diamonds, a suit of flaming red and a fox stole complete with little claws and perhaps eight feet long. It was possible, though unlikely, that many in the crowd had not seen them bid, but as soon as auctioneer David Bathurst awarded them the painting they blew their cover by rising ostentatiously and strolling from the room.

The two other Simon pictures offered were by Matisse and Picasso. Though bidding for the Matisse, a picture of a reclining nude wrapped in a black scarf, painted in 1917, reached $1.4 million, Simon had set a higher reserve price, and the canvas did not sell. The cubist Picasso, "Woman with a Guitar" (1915), went to an anonymous collector for an even $2 million. "Acrobat Seated With Arms Crossed," a Picasso of 1923, brought exactly $3 million at the nearby sales rooms of Sotheby Parke Bernet last May. It was auctioned during one of the two so-called "car sales" in which 50 pictures from the collections of Henry Ford II and the late Col. Edgar William and Bernice Chrysler Garbisch fetched an aggregate of more than $33 million in two evening auctions.

Sales last night did not maintain that same heady pace. Of the 70 works placed upon the block, six were withdrawn before the sale, and 10 failed to reach their reserve prices. Those that did sell fetched a total of $12,422,000.

The Munch, which set a record for the artist, was expected to do well for a variety of reasons. The artist, known for his images of high sexual energy, was the subject of a major retrospective held not long ago at the National Gallery of Art. Few of his major works are still in private hands and this one -- whose jutting bridge resembles that scene in "The Scream," and whose domed tree appears in his "Starry Night" -- may perhaps be read as an index to his work. Save for the two Simon pictures, only one painting, a 1908 painting of water lilies by Claude Monet, sold for more than $1 million. 1It went to another anonymous buyer for $1,050,000.

"Deluge II," a 1912 oil by Wassily Kandinsky, brought $950,000. Marc Chagall's "Le Marche de Bestiaux" of 1924 fetched $450,000. Both these pictures set record prices for their painters. Two other objects, one a 1915 allegorical Renoir, the other a 1912 still life by Odilon Redon, sold for $400,000 apiece. The "Golden Cuirasse" by Kees Van Dongen (1907) went for $315,000 -- a record for Van Dongen -- to an anonymous European collector.

The buyers from New York and points farther afield will meet again tonight at Sotheby's for a sale of "highly important paintings, drawings and sculpture" from the collection of the late Andre Meyer, the New York-based investment banker, philanthropist and art collector who died at 81 in 1979.