A "bright, brilliant and beautiful" painting by Vincent van Gogh was purchased yesterday by an anonymous private European collector in London for $20.24 million, the second highest amount ever paid for a work of art at auction.

"Le Pont de Trinquetaille's" staggering price is only about half the $39.9 million paid in March by a Japanese insurance company for another van Gogh, "Sunflowers."

"Le Pont's" unsigned 1888 canvas, showing an iron bridge spanning the Rhone River near Arles in southern France, was sold after an intense two-minute bidding battle between the buyer and the underbidder, European art dealer Neville Keating. Bidding started at $8 million and went up in bursts of $800,000. The high price easily outstripped the $11 million estimated by Christie's auction house in London.

The painting was sold by the family of Siegfried Kramarsky, a European collector who bought it in 1932 for $8,000. He sent it to the United States for safekeeping during World War II, and for the past three years it has been on loan to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York, where officials said yesterday that it had been a very popular attraction.

It was not known who the buyer was, only that the winning bid came in via telephone from a European private collector. "The buyer's identity," said Christie's New York spokesman Robin Riley, "will probably never be revealed."

Riley said yesterday's sale by "no means" denotes a growing artistic and economic fascination with the Dutch postimpressionist's works.

"The high price does not indicate a trend in relation to van Gogh biddings," Riley said. "What it does show is that there are individuals out there willing to pay that amount of money for the cre`me de la cre`me of impressionistic works, van Gogh or no van Gogh."

Christie's in London said the previous auction record for a work of art -- pre-"Sunflowers" -- was the $11.9 million paid in 1983 for the 12th-century illuminated manuscript of "The Gospels of Henry the Lion." The highest previous price for a van Gogh -- also pre-"Sunflowers" -- was set two years ago at Sotheby's when "Landscape With Rising Sun" sold for $9.9 million.

Art dealers across the world had been anxiously watching yesterday's sale as a barometer for the current art market. But the $20.24 million price of "Le Pont de Trinquetaille" shows that the enormous amount paid for "Sunflowers" was a rather isolated event, Riley said.

"Today's biddings," she said, "shows us that a $39.9 million bid won't come along every day."

Although "Le Pont de Trinquetaille" is less well known than "Sunflowers," art historians and connoisseurs consider it one of van Gogh's finest works. Believed to have been executed in one session, the 28 3/4-by-36 1/4-inch painting was completed two years before the artist's suicide at the age of 37 in 1890. It was one of five paintings he did in a seven-day creative frenzy.

"The brush strokes are very free and vigorous on this work," Riley said. "Physically, the painting looks more fresh than 'Sunflowers.' It's a very magical van Gogh, a bright, brilliant and beautiful work of art."

Van Gogh's unhappy life, punctuated by moments of insanity and melancholy, was illustrated in many of his works. Largely unrecognized during his lifetime, van Gogh often revealed his frustrations in bitter, gloomy letters written to friends and relatives. "The work holds me in its grip," he wrote to his brother Theo during a particularly rough period in his career, "and I am sure I shall not lose by it if I can go on like this ..."

Originally owned by Theo's widow, "Le Pont de Trinquetaille" passed through several hands before being purchased by Kramarsky for the $8,000.

"Quite a different price," Riley said, "than the one we witnessed today."