A collection of 19th-century Orientalist paintings owned by Coral Petroleum Inc. fetched $7.1 million here tonight at Sotheby's. The collection, amassed by Coral Chairman David B. Chalmers of Houston over the past six years, was almost certainly enhanced in value by an exhibition last summer at the National Gallery of Art.

Leading the collection -- an assembly of 61 lushly romantic views of North Africa and the Near East through the eyes of European painters from the late 18th to early 20th century -- was a $1.26 million bid for "An Intercepted Correspondence, Cairo" (1869) by British artist John Frederick Lewis. Chalmers purchased the 29 1/4-by-39 1/8-inch oil painting of a harem scene for $451,000 at Christie's in London in 1979, a good indication of the return on his investment.

Before tonight, the auction record for a painting by the French artist Jean Le'on Ge'ro me was $187,000. Tonight an unidentified private collector paid $440,000 for a starkly realistic depiction of the dome of the mosque of Amir Khayrbak in Cairo titled "Un Muezzin Appelant Du Haut Du Minaret Les Fide les A La Prie re" (1879-1880).

There was no auction record for the Austrian painter Gustave Bauernfeind before the sale. The record now stands at $352,000 for "Market in Jaffa" (1887), purchased by The Mathaf Gallery in London. Another Ge'ro me, "Les Derviches Tourneurs," a technicolor presentation of whirling dervishes in Cairo, took fourth place in the Coral auction at $352,000.

Only three of the 61 pictures failed to find buyers. Alexander Apsis, Sotheby's London-based specialist for 19th-century paintings, said after the sale that he was "very, very happy. There were a number of new buyers in the room. People who normally buy Impressionist art have moved into this field. I think it is a case of people who have realized that they are not just decorative pictures."

In 1979 when most people looked down on Orientalist art as "just decorative pictures," David Chalmers had good reason to look up to it. The collection "was a brilliant public relations move," according to Art & Auction magazine, "a gesture of good will aimed at the Arab members of OPEC with whom Coral did business."

Under the direction of Lorraine Dyess, a curator at Kurt E. Schon Ltd. Gallery in New Orleans, Chambers rapidly bought low in order to eventually sell high. "The original concept was to spend about $1 million to get 30 good pictures," said Dyess. "We were able to buy some things from an Iranian oil minister after the collapse of the shah. Eventually we paid more than a million dollars for the collection."

After the collection was completed, Dyess in 1983 approached several leading museums with proposals for an exhibition of the collection. The Royal Academy in London put on a show before the enormously popular National Gallery viewing, "The Orientalists: Delacroix to Matisse" (July 1-Oct. 8, 1984).

When Coral faced a slumping oil market and moved to reorganize under federal bankruptcy laws, Chalmers had to sell his pictures sooner than expected. In the view of many art followers, the timing of the sale has left the National Gallery, a public institution, in an awkward position. "I think the museum was used, as almost any museum is used when paintings like this come on the market," said a dealer who asked not to be identified.

J. Carter Brown, director of the National Gallery, pointed out in an interview in Tuesday's Washington Post that he had no way of knowing the pictures would be sold. "When the exhibition was planned, the paintings were not for sale then. Coral was riding high. We thought they might even be a corporate sponsor for us . . ."

Sotheby's Apsis does not believe that the National Gallery exhibition boosted prices. "I think what it did," he said, "was open the eyes of people to just how important Orientalist pictures can be."