A long-lost Artic seascape by a long-neglected artist yesterday became the most expensive painting ever sold at auction in the United States. The price was $2.5 million, a record for an American work of art.

The painting is "The Icebergs" of 1861 by Frederic Edwin Church (1826-1900), purchased by an anonymous American collector who telephoned his bid to the New York salesrooms of Sotheby Parke Bernet.

Bidding began at $500,000; three bidders were in the running until $1.5 million; at about $2 million, only two were left.

No single work by Rembrandt, Raphael or Cezanne, and only two Old Masters -- a $5.54 million Velazquez and a $4 million Titian -- have been auctioned off for more.

The 9-foot canvas, framed, weights 500 pounds. The chilling scene includes a green translucent cave, a floating mountain of ice, and in the foreground a broken mast suggesting lost explorers.The picture has a history comparably dramatic, a fact that may explain its enormous price.

The picture was believed to have been lost in the 19th century, but was discoverd this summer hanging at Rose Hill, a Victorian mansion, in Manchester, England, that is now a home for boys.

The previous high for a Church canvas was $230,000. The previous auction record for a work by an American was the $980,000 fetched by a George Caleb Bingham in Lost Angeles last year.

Church, before this sale, was regarded by historians as a highly gifted member of the second generation of the Hudson River School. He studied with Thomas Cole (1801-'48), another painter fond of high drama. But while Cole filled his pictures with allegorical figures, Church preferred to move the viewer's soul with highly dramatic scenes of the spectacles of nature.

He visited the Alps, Greece and the Near East. In 1853 and 1857, moved by the explorations of Alexander von Humbolt, Church went south to Ecuador to record the landscape there.

Before commencing "The Icebergs," Church chartered a ship and sailed through the frigid, iceberg-littered seas off Labrador and Newfoundland. He made that trip in June 1859, and spend much of the next two years working on the canvas. Much praised in New York, where it was first exhibited in 1861, the painting was then shown in London. Sold there, it soon vanished.

Scholars now believe that by 1885 the work had been acquired by Sir Edward William Watkin, a railroad magnate who installed it at his home, Rose Hill. The mansion, complete with "The Icebergs," was purchased by the City of Manchester in 1901.

The city will receive a net sum of $2 million. Both the buyer and the seller pay 10 percent commissions to Sotheby Parke Bernet.

The auctioneers had estimated that the work would fetch between $750,000 and $1 million. Yesterday's sale of 263 American pictures was expected to bring in a total of between $4 million and $5.5 million. The actual net totaled nearly $6.6 million, breaking a record set last April in New York by a $4 million sale of American pictures.

Additional records for 39 American painters also were set at the daylong New York auction.

"evening" by George Inness, a work of 1868 put upon the block by the Metropolitan Museum of Art, fetched $145,000, which was $45,000 above its high presale estimate; "The Last Covered Bridge" by Grandma Moses brought $49,000; Edward Hopper's "The Lee Shore" of 1941 went for $230,000, though it had been expected to sell for somewhat more. "The Judith Basin Roundup," an 1889 western scene by Charles Marion Russell, sold for $185,000, which also was below its presale estimate of between $200,000 and $300,000.