An 1888 picture of a garden in Arles -- painted by Vincent van Gogh for his friend Paul Gauguin -- brought $5.2 million at Christie's New York tonight, becoming the second most expensive picture ever sold at auction and breaking the record price set Monday night for the costliest painting ever sold in the United States.

Auction records for Cezanne, Gauguin, Degas and Modigliani also toppled as Ford beat Chrysler handily in what have become known as the "car sales."

Led by a $3 million Picasso portrait, the 40 pictures from the collection of the late Col. Edgar Williams and Bernice Chrysler Garbisch fetched $14,835,500 at Sotheby Parke Bernet last night -- a figure easily surpassed by the $18,390,000 earned today by 10 superior pictures from the collection of Henry Ford II.

The Ford sale gave Christie's -- the London auctioneers who opened their Manhattan salesroom just three years ago -- an important victory over their long-established rivals, Sotheby Parke Bernet. As Christie's president, David Bathurst, reminded the standing-room-only audience at the sale's close, the four most costly paintings ever auctioned have all been sold by Christie's. The most expensive remains the $5,544,000 Velazquez portrait purchased by the Metropolitan Museum of Art in 1970.

Van Gogh's "The Poet's Garden, Arles" is one of four he painted as decoration for Gauguin's room. "This garden has a fantastic character which makes you quite able to imagine the poets of the Renaissance, Dante, Petrarch, Boccaccio, strolling among these bushes and over the flowering grass," he wrote his brother Theo in 1888. The Ford picture, the third of four in the cycle, represents "an immense pine tree of greenish blue, spreading its branches . . . ," Van Gogh wrote.

The Van Gogh went to an anonymous telephone bidder on a night when all buyers went unidentified.

A portrait by Paul Cezanne showing a peasant in a blue blouse seated before a painted screen of Cezanne's earliest known picture fetched $3.9 million. The portrait was painted between 1895 and 1897.

The Gauguin, "The Beach at Pouldu," a seascape showing Japanese influence and made in 1889 on the coast of Brittany, brought $2.9 million.

A second van Gogh, "The Public Garden," also dated 1888 and also made in Arles, brought $1.9 million tonight, although it is a picture almost as beautiful as the one that a few moments before went for more than twice as much.

"The Beach," by Eugene Boudin, painted in 1867, went for $480,000. An equestrian portrait by Edouard Manet brought $650,000. "La Serre," a flowery landscape painted by Pierre Renoir in 1876, sold for $1.2 million, and an Edgar Degas nude brought $900,000. A Picasso head of 1906 brought $600,000 and a seated nude by Amedeo Modigliani went for $600,000.

The entire Ford sale took less than half an hour.

The auctioneers had distributed more than 1,000 tickets for tonight's headquarters and overflowed into a large room next door, borrowed for the occasion from the nightclub Regine's.

Ford, like Bernice Garbisch, began buying impressionist pictures after World War II.

Garbisch, who died last December, was the second daughter of automobile tycoon Walter P. Chrysler. The Chrysler pictures were sold to settle an estate. Though Christie's insists otherwise, the reason for Ford's selling is believed to be his recent divorce.

When arrested for drunken driving in 1975 in the company of Kathleen DuRoss, a former model and close friend, Ford told questioning reporters, "Never explain, never complain." His wife at the time, Cristina, divorced the 62-year-old businessman, who retired last October as chief executive officer of the Ford Motor Co., saying she would "never, never, never, never" have married him if she had known what she knows now. The divorce settlement of earlier this year was never revealed, although Cristina was seeking between $10 million and $15 million.

Though he reserved eight tickets for today's auction, Ford did not appear. His reasons for selecting Christie's are not known, though his first wife, Anne, now represents the firm on the West Coast.

After the Ford sale, 98 other impressionist and modern works of art were sold at Christie's, fetching a total of more than $7.1 million. At this auction, Ford's sister, who is confusingly named Mrs. Walter B. Ford II, sold a Gauguin, "Still Life With Profile of Laval," for $570,000. CAPTION: Picture 1, Cezanne's "Peasant in Blue Blouse." Christie's; Picture 2, Vincent van Gogh's "The Poet's Garden, Arles," which sold for $5.2 million last night in New York. Christie's