NEW YORK -- The spectators swiveled in their gilt chairs, trying to follow the action. The electronic toteboard above Sotheby's selling floor tracked the bids in dollars, pounds, francs, marks, lire and yen. A dozen camera crews and scores of reporters gawked from the sidelines, as if an auction of fine art were a spectator sport, which, indeed, this one was.

In the space of three minutes yesterday evening, "Irises," one of Vincent van Gogh's most beautiful paintings, was sold for $53.9 million to a collector whose identity was not immediately disclosed. The telephone bid, submitted by a European agent, shattered the previous record for a work of art sold at auction, the $39.9 million paid for van Gogh's "Sunflowers" last March.

"I'm so excited," said the seller, John Whitney Payson, who watched the auction with almost 30 friends and family members. At one point, he said, worried that the bidding was sluggish, "I had a sinking feeling ... 'Oh my God, maybe it's not going to go.' "

Payson, smoking a cigarette and holding a glass of postauction bourbon, said he had targeted $32 million to $34 million as his desired price. When the bidding reached that level, he said, "I let out a whoop that disturbed almost everyone in the room." There was more whooping when the bids hit $40 million: "Someone said it sounded like a football game." And when the gavel came down, Payson said, "there was just euphoria. The entire family was kissing each other, hugging each other."

"I think it's obvious that the art market is alive and well," said John L. Marion, chairman of Sotheby's of North America. "Everyone who would listen to me for the last week, I was telling that this painting was beyond the stock market ... I would say the art market has been performing extremely well since Black Monday."

Yesterday's sales totaled more than $110 million, the highest auction total on record for a single session. The previous high, set at Sotheby's in May, was $63 million. Among the more than 90 items auctioned was the Phillips Collection's deaccessioned Braque, "Music" (a k a "Le Violin"), which went for $3.3 million.

For weeks it had been clear that this sale -- "Impressionist and Modern Paintings and Sculpture Part I" -- promised to be a Major Art Event, and not only because of the rareness and radiance of the picture in question, the as-yet-unascertained impact of stock market jitters, and the two other big van Gogh sales in the past eight months (in June, "The Bridge at Trinquetaille" brought $20.2 million).

The auctioning of "Irises" demonstrated, as well, how the tenacious international marketing efforts of a major auction house and the obligingly reciprocal interest of the press could jointly generate a buzz that made for brisk business.

"It has the effect of promoting a little electricity," Marion, surveying the chic crowd at Monday night's preauction reception, had said of the hoopla. "Can't you feel the energy?"

The Paysons And the Painting

Occupying a niche between a Giacometti bronze and a Gauguin, the painting had, for several days before the sale, enjoyed its own pair of security guards behind a velvet rope barrier in Sotheby's galleries. More than 12,000 art lovers streamed in last weekend for what could have been a last look.

Painted in France in May of 1889, five months after van Gogh mutilated his right ear and one week after he entered an asylum in Saint Re'my, "Irises" is a glowing rendition of the garden outside the iron-barred window of his monastic cell. It was first shown at the Salon des Artistes Independants exhibit in 1889 and last shown at last season's Metropolitan Museum blockbuster "Van Gogh in Saint-Remy and Auvers," in which curators awarded it a starring role.

"If a museum could only have one painting by van Gogh, that's what it should get," said art historian John Rewald before the sale. Rewald went on about its coloration ("an incredible tour de force"), its composition ("a masterstroke") and its general superiority to the "Sunflowers" painting that set the previous auction record in London.

For the past 40 years, "Irises" has been the property of the wealthy and philanthropic Payson clan, an offshoot of the wealthy and philanthropic Whitney clan. Joan Whitney Payson -- art collector, horse breeder and first owner of the New York Mets -- bought "Irises" in 1947 for $84,000; it hung over a nonfunctional fireplace in the family's Fifth Avenue apartment until she died in 1975. The terms of her will, and of her husband's, probably contributed to the van Gogh's going on the block.

Joan Payson, whose burial included a rendition of "Take Me Out to the Ballgame," left trusts ($7.5 million apiece) and various artworks to her four children (John Whitney Payson, now 47, got "Irises" and 27 other paintings). But the bulk of her $100 million estate went to her husband Charles Shipman Payson. He then had the ill grace, in his children's view, to marry a sportswoman and sportswriter 32 years his junior in 1977 and, in the eight remaining years of his life, to continually rewrite his will in her favor. Virginia Kraft Payson inherited the lioness' share of the estimated $70 million estate.

Charles Payson's children thought their stepmother was "a big-game hunter and my father was the prey," John Whitney Payson, 47, told Forbes magazine recently. But not even a nasty four-month trial involving some of Manhattan's highest-priced legal firms could break the will. In June of this year, a jury upheld it; early this September, possibly coincidentally, John Whitney Payson announced that Sotheby's would auction "Irises."

Since 1977, it and other family-owned pieces had been on "extended loan" to Westbrook College, a small coed school in Portland, Maine, where John Payson had built a starkly white, postmodernist gallery named for his mother. The prospect of the painting's departure shocked and dismayed the arts community in Maine, and apparently troubled Payson as well. "I think he's quite anguished about this sale," said Westbrook PR director Bruce Kidman the day before the auction.

At a press conference in September, John Payson blamed his decision on the "recent and unprecedented spiral in art prices." After the "Sunflowers" sale, his van Gogh was reevaluated, adding to already burdensome insurance and storage costs. Tax reform had made the option of donating paintings economically unattractive. Payson also knew that Westbrook College was suffering from almost a decade of declining enrollment and would run a "significant" deficit this year, officials say.

"He couldn't afford to give it away; he couldn't afford to keep it," summarized Sotheby's Chairman Marion. Payson, watching other, perhaps lesser, van Goghs bringing stratospheric prices in London, had decided to sell.

Bread and Circuses

Ordinarily, the possibility of such a consignment would trigger intense competition among auctioneers. The more desirable the item, the more auction houses will dangle incentives before its owner: glossy, prestigious catalogues; reduced or eliminated commissions; foreign exhibitions; champagne receptions and general public ballyhoo; even cash advances. "It all depends on the value of the consignment, how much income it generates," said Marcus Halliwell, vice president at Phillips, one of Sotheby's East Side rivals. "If you are getting $4 million for one painting" -- as Sotheby's could expect from its 10 percent buyer's premium, if "Irises" were to equal the "Sunflowers" record -- "it gives you some leeway."

To disappointed teeth-gnashing at Phillips and Christie's, however, John Whitney Payson did not shop around for an auctioneer. In a tribute to the value of family connections, he went directly to Sotheby's. Marion had known Joan Whitney Payson; Marion's father Louis, also an auction house executive, had done business with her as well. "We've done appraisals for the family over the years," said John Marion. "It was natural they would turn to us."

"I listened to their pitch," John Payson recalled in September. "You saved me a quarter," he remembered telling Marion. "I don't have to call Christie's."

Not that John Payson got a bad deal, despite the lack of competition. "Irises" got most of the promotional extras that have become almost standard in such high-priced, high-profile sales.

Sotheby's officials would not discuss the financial details, but Payson told Westbrook College officials and other associates that the 10 percent commission normally charged the consignor had been waived, as is common in such cases. Sotheby's revenues for its efforts come from the aforementioned buyer's premium, a surcharge paid by the purchaser of the painting.

Sotheby's also published a single-owner catalogue, a hardbound volume of color plates and shiny stock devoted solely to "Irises." Consignors like having their very own catalogues; it confers importance on the object or collection. Sotheby's produced 11,000 of the catalogues to be mailed to subscribing clients, a gesture that will probably cost $50,000 to $100,000, sources at other auction houses estimate. Ordinary art lovers can also walk in and buy them for $35, but Sotheby's isn't worried about selling enough to recoup its investment. It's "the biggest marketing tool we have; we invest a lot in catalogues," Marion said.

The biggest expense in Sotheby's two-month marketing campaign for "Irises" was foreign exhibitions to drum up international interest. Along with 23 other choice canvases destined for last night's sale, and along with Sotheby's senior staff, the van Gogh went to Tokyo for two weeks last month. Japan has become an important art market, especially for impressionist paintings, especially with the U.S. dollar at a postwar low against the yen. "Our taking pictures to Japan always results in more interest than if we don't," commented Christopher Burge, president of Christie's in America. It was a Tokyo-based insurance company that paid the $39.9 million at Christie's in London for "Sunflowers."

"Irises" traveled from Tokyo to London (with John Payson along for the ride) for a 2 1/2-day exhibit, then to Geneva and to Zurich. At each stop, Sotheby's tossed receptions and arranged public and private viewings.

The costs of the catalogue, insurance fees, transit, receptions and publicity could total as much as half a million dollars, estimate executives at other auction houses. Marion called that figure high (while declining to be more precise), but expected the expenditures to prove worthwhile. "In order to be able to sell things for tremendous amounts," he said, "you have to invest a substantial amount."

Publicity helps. "It spreads the name of the house," said Phillips' Halliwell. "It makes you high profile." The van Gogh sale "will bring the focus of attention to Sotheby's, which is very good for business, now and in the future," Marion said.

Potential bidders knew they would be going after a prize "that has the admiration of the public and will be widely reported in the media, which a buyer will factor into his decision," Marion said. "Wouldn't you?"

Wednesday Night Fever

"Who'll say $15 million to start it?" the auctioneer announced at 8 p.m. as "Irises" revolved into view on a Lazy Susan-like structure to his right. The bidding climbed gradually to $20 million, then moved more rapidly -- in million-dollar increments -- into the $30 million range. Applause rippled through the packed room as $40 million was bid and the new record was set. Finally, two telephone bidders remained. "Fair warning," said the auctioneer. "Sold for 49 million dollars." With the 10 percent buyer's premium, the total became $53.9 million.

More than a thousand people had squeezed into the main salesroom -- among them Bianca Jagger, Andy Williams, Margaux Hemingway and her father Jack, and, chewing gum in the front row, Jack Nicholson. Several hundred were forced to stand; all had been screened for credit-worthiness, since, theoretically, any could register as bidders and receive numbered red plastic paddles with which to signal the auctioneer. That was tuxedoed John Marion, his podium flanked by banks of phones on which absent dealers and collectors discreetly called in bids.

Another 800 or 900 spectators, clients and staff followed the action over closed-circuit television in several overflow rooms. Favored consignors peered down from a third-floor gallery, where they could sip champagne out of camera range.

Cameras -- there were plenty of those. Sotheby's, which usually hosts a handful of reporters and restricts videotaping to its own in-house crew, was invaded by roughly 100 reporters and camerapeople. Japanese, British and German television were granted access; requests from Spain, Italy and Australia had been rejected for lack of space.

The hot topic beforehand was whether "Irises" would break the "Sunflowers" record. At major auctions, bidders come armed with "preconceived notions about what they want to spend," Marion acknowledged earlier in the week. "Then competition, the atmosphere in the room, a lot of things influence what happens ... I do whatever I can to encourage people to go just a bit higher."

The announcement of the van Gogh sale, of course, had preceded the stock market's Black Monday by six weeks. Most auctioned items have a secret "reserve price," below which the work is returned to its owner unsold. A number of expensive works by major artists have failed to meet their reserves in recent weeks. But the meltdown was unlikely, Marion had argued before the sale, to affect this particular item. "This painting transcends the stock market," he insisted.

The price was an issue of more than academic interest. It could affect art prices in general, historian Rewald pointed out Tuesday. "If the result is as high as I think it will be, as it ought to be for a painting of this quality, it will push everything up," he said. "When a first-rate picture brings a fabulous amount, the second-rate and the third-rate pictures all go along."

At current prices, of course, most museums -- already largely dependent on gifts rather than purchases to augment their collections -- were prohibited from even bidding. After the "Sunflowers" sale, Metropolitan Museum Director Philippe de Montebello told The New York Times, "I feel like a fossil, awakened in another era." The commission paid to Christie's alone exceeded the Met's total annual acquisition fund.

Some of the after-tax proceeds from "Irises" will go to a museum, though it's a small one in Portland with fewer than 2,000 visitors a year. John Whitney Payson has earmarked 12.5 percent of the proceeds to Westbrook College for its general operating fund. Another 12.5 percent will establish the Joan Whitney and Charles Shipman Payson Charitable Foundation to fund Maine charities, including the Skowhegan School of Painting and Sculpture (Payson's the chairman), a new Maine aquarium and the Joan Whitney Payson Gallery at Westbrook. The remainder will be placed in a family trust.

None of the $53.9 million, of course, can in any way benefit the artist, who sold one painting during his lifetime and committed suicide in 1890 at the age of 37. Van Gogh knew something about art fever, however. In a letter to his brother in 1883, six years before he painted "Irises," he compared it to the hysterical bull market in Dutch tulip bulbs.

"I am sure that many rich people, who for some reason or other buy expensive pictures, do not do so because of the art value they find in them," he wrote. "They, the speculators ... would buy tulip bulbs now just as formerly, if it were but fashionable.