In a spirited sale of impressionist and modern paintings and sculpture, marked by high-quality lots from a handful of museums and private estates, Sotheby's tonight auctioned 71 works for $31,542,500.

The total was just short of the Sotheby's record of $32,617,750, set at the April 1985 auction of the Florence Gould collection of impressionist pictures and modern art.

Among the records set for individual artists was an 1868 Henri Fantin-Latour still life of plump peaches and a bursting flower bouquet that sold for $1,540,000, doubling that artist's previous high, set last year. Camille Pissarro's carriage-choked "Avenue de l'Ope'ra Place du Theatre Francais," painted from the artist's high perch at the Hotel du Louvre in 1898, commanded the same price, far outstripping its presale estimate. Both pictures came from the collection of Mr. and Mrs. David Bakalar, whose five pictures sold for a total of $6,297,500.

"The sale really lived up to our highest expectations," said John L. Tancock, Sotheby's expert in charge of tonight's sale. "They were fresh on the market, attractive and without major problems. There were no real surprises."

Henri de Toulouse-Lautrec's "Au Bal de l'Ope'ra," filled with top hats, monocles and masked women, fetched the highest price of the evening at $2.86 million. Henri Matisse's "Femme Peintre," featuring a painter clad in striped pajamas against a Mediterranean view, sold for $1.1 million. The new owner of the painting -- according to a catalogue note -- is asked to lend it to the National Gallery for the show "Matisse: Mastery of Light and Patterns/The Early Years in Nice," which opens in Washington next November.

Amedeo Modigliani's red-haired seated figure "Portrait of Annie Djarne," painted in 1919, sold for $1.98 million.

Meshulam Riklis, chairman of the McCrory Corp. and a major collector of geometric abstract works, bought the painting for his private collection. At one point there was a delay in the frenzied bidding for the slope-shouldered woman in the plain, grayish frock. John L. Marion, chairman and president of Sotheby's North America as well as chief auctioneer, waited patiently for another $100,000 increment bid, observed Riklis in close consultation with an associate and informed the crowd, "It's a council meeting with the family." Riklis' final bid of $1.8 million -- to which the regular 10 percent buyer's premium was added -- cinched the picture.

In a bout of deaccession fever, two major New York museums, the Metropolitan and the Solomon R. Guggenheim, sold nine works for a total of $4.8 million. A delectable group of Renoir pastels and Degas dancers realized $3,393,500 for the Metropolitan, while three sculptures, including a rare plaster work by Constantine Brancusi, brought $1,463,000 for the Guggenheim.

"It certainly is not an easy decision," said Thomas M. Messer, director of the Guggenheim. "Whenever you deaccession important things, you regret the need to do so. The only thing that justifies it is the importance of the work you are acquiring." The Guggenheim paid more than $2 million late last year for the one-of-a-kind white marble version of "The Muse."

"What happens with us and other museums," said John Ross, a spokesman for the Metropolitan, "is every once in a while we are bequeathed pictures that are in effect duplications. If it is approved by the donor we go through a rather formal process called -- unfortunately -- deaccessioning and put them up at auction."

Virtually all the lots in tonight's sale had secret reserves, a term defined by Sotheby's as "the confidential minimum price agreed between the seller and us, below which the lot will not ordinarily be sold." Nine lots were "bought in" at tonight's sale.

The final lot of the evening, a modern work, was Henry Moore's "Two Piece Reclining Figure No. 2," cast in 1960. It sold for $935,000 even though the massive bronze cast had not yet reached New York. The work sold on the strength of its pedigree and the color photograph in the catalogue.