Claude Monet's sun-dappled "Meules" ("Haystacks"), painted in 1890, was the star lot in tonight's sale of impressionist and modern works at Christie's, snaring a near-record $2.5 million.

Continuing with strong signals of a buoyant market sparked by surging exchange rates from Japan and Europe, the auction generated $16,644,100, with 41 of the 61 lots sold. While the total was only a little more than half of what arch-rival Sotheby's sold here in a Tuesday night auction of impressionist and modern works, tonight's sale brought continued hefty prices for impressionist pictures.

"Baigneuse," by Pierre Auguste Renoir, sold for $1,430,000, while another Monet, "Petites Iles de Porte-Zillez," realized $825,000, soaring over its presale estimate of $450,000. Both pictures were purchased by anonymous Japanese collectors.

Christopher J. Burge, president of Christie's New York and auctioneer of the sale, expressed disappointment at a postauction wine tasting that Juan Gris' "Violin et Verre" hadn't sold. It was bought in at $480,000 after not meeting its reserve price. Oddly enough, the bought-in price would have shattered the record of $352,000 that was paid for Gris' "Glasses on a Table" at Sotheby's in 1980.

Stronger showings were made by Fernand Le'ger's still life "Le Compotier Rouge," which sold for $638,000, and Amedeo Modigliani's waitress-madonna, "Te te de Femme (Rosalia)," which went for $605,000 to an Italian collector.

Following in the deaccession footsteps of New York's Metropolitan and the Solomon R. Guggenheim museums, Washington's Hirshhorn Museum and Sculpture Garden entered the auction arena tonight and came away with $1,421,200.

The Hirshhorn's centerpiece offering, Henry Moore's green-patinaed "Seated Woman," drew active bidding. As auctioneer Burge steered the bidding well past its high estimate of $750,000, the nearby electronic scoreboard flashed the current bid in five major currencies from the Japanese yen to the Swiss franc. "Seated Woman" sold for $990,000 (which includes the mandatory 10 percent buyer's premium), the third highest lot of the evening. The Moore brought a slightly higher price than its younger offspring, "Two Piece Reclining Figure No. 2," which sold at Sotheby's Tuesday for $935,000. The record price for a Moore is the $1,265,000 paid for "Reclining Figure" at Sotheby's in 1982.

Two other Hirshhorn bronzes were sold. A Degas pregnant dancer, "Femme Enceinte," went for a modest $35,200, and a bold Henri Matisse head, "Henriette III," brought $396,000. A fourth Hirshhorn bronze, Pablo Picasso's young harlequin "Te'te de Fou," was withdrawn from the sale when it was discovered that the cast is older than was originally thought. That should substantially increase the original estimate, which was in the $50,000 to $70,000 range. The Picasso will be offered for sale at Christie's in the fall.

The Hirshhorn owns an identical "Seated Woman" from the same edition cast in 1956. It is part of Joseph Hirshhorn's bequest to the museum and sits outdoors facing the Mall. The sculpture that sold tonight was on permanent view there until last year when the two swapped places.

In a telephone interview before the evening's sale, James Demetrion, director of the Hirshhorn, emphasized that "all three sculptures are duplicate casts from the collection. Theoretically, they are the easiest to deaccession." When Joseph Hirshhorn gave his immense art collection to the nation in 1966, he stipulated that any works could be sold or exchanged for new ones at the discretion of the curators. Discussions are under way at the museum on the disposition of the funds from the auction. "More than likely," said Demetrion, "the money will go into an endowment fund or at least a significant portion of it, rather than for direct purchases. It won't be a princely sum. We've got a long ways to go, and I haven't made up my wanted list yet. I can say the emphasis will be on post-World War II art.

"Deaccessioning will be an ongoing process," continued Demetrion. "Many museums these days -- especially in this country -- are reviewing their collections. That's part of the housekeeping job. What one person might deaccession is another person's masterpiece. What might be perfect for a private living room is not suitable for a museum."

Asked whether the presale estimates on the bronzes reflected his projections, Demetrion said, "I have a good imagination and I can picture prices 20 times their estimate, but that's not realistic. If they go higher, all the better. If they go below, then we'll cry a little.