A medieval German manuscript that has been out of public view for almost four decades sold today for a record 8.14 million pounds ($11.8 million), making it by far the most expensive work of art ever sold at auction.

The 800-year-old Gospels of Henry the Lion, considered by art experts to be one of the world's finest and most perfectly preserved illuminated manuscripts, was sold by the London auction house of Sotheby's to two well-known international art dealers acting on behalf of the West German government and a consortium of private banks. The seller remained anonymous.

Bidding was opened at 1 million pounds, and the sale lasted just over three minutes. The price exceeded even the most optimistic predictions by Sotheby's experts, who had estimated the manuscript would bring 2 million to 3 million pounds.

The Germans saw the auction as a chance to repatriate a national treasure and were prepared to bid even higher, according to New York rare book dealer Hans Kraus, one of the two dealers representing the Germans at the auction.

"This was the greatest book that was ever sold," Kraus exclaimed immediately after the final bid. "It was a real bargain. I'm very disappointed that it sold so cheaply."

There were at least four other bidders for the manuscript, all unidentified.

Hermann Abs, a German banker and a spokesman for the purchasers, said the manuscript "will find its way home" and be placed in a library in Wolfenbu ttel in the German State of Lower Saxony.

The 8.14-million-pound price tag includes the 7.4-million-pound ($10.7 million) final bid, plus a traditional 10 percent commission the buyers will pay Sotheby's.

The book's last owners have held it since the 1940s, when it disappeared from public view.

The last record price for a work of art was set in New York in 1980, when the J.M.W. Turner painting "Juliet and Her Nurse" was auctioned for $6.4 million.

The previous record auction price for a book or manuscript was the $5.2 million paid by industrialist Armand Hammer in 1980 for Leonardo's "Leicester Codex."

The manuscript sold today has 41 perfectly preserved illustrations in brilliant colors, and more than 1,500 illuminated initials. Art experts said the book has only rarely been exposed to sunlight. Commissioned around A.D. 1173 by the German prince Henry the Lion as his grandest display of wealth and power, the book contains the only known contemporary portraits of Henry II of England, and the earliest surviving picture of St. Thomas a Becket. The 226-vellum-leaf book measures 13 1/2 inches by 10 inches. The 16th-century binding, made in Prague, is on a wooden frame and ornamented with silver.

The manuscript remained in Brunswick Cathedral, where Henry the Lion was buried, until it was taken to Prague sometime in the 14th century. It was purchased from the Prague Cathedral in the 1860s by the Austrian House of Hanover, and remained with the Hanovers until an unknown private family purchased it sometime after World War II.

The manuscript had not been seen publicly since that sale, until Sotheby's agents found the owners and arranged for today's auction.

The State of Lower Saxony, the Bavarian state government, the federal government in Bonn and the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation in Berlin jointly purchased the book. They were aided by a bank consortium led by Norddeutsche Landesbank Girozentrale of Hanover.

At today's auction, the Germans were represented by Kraus and by Nicholas Poole-Wilson, a director of Quaritch Ltd., the London antique booksellers.

Speculation of a strong German bid to regain the manuscripts began early in the day, and the rumors intensified when Kraus and his wife entered the auction room and took third row seats next to Poole-Wilson and Hermann Abs.

Excitement slowly built in the wood-paneled room as auctioneer Richard Came led off with 49 other medieval art objects, including manuscript leaves and a large 11th-century Bible, which Kraus bought with a bid of 85,000 pounds.

More than 300 of the world's most renowned art dealers and collectors jammed into the room along with journalists and the just plain curious, all of whom strained to get a glimpse when the manuscript--Item 50 on the list--was held up.

Poole-Wilson directed the bidding for the German group, fending off an aggressive counter-bidder with firm nods of his head at the auctioneer.

When the bidding reached 7.4 million pounds, auctioneer Came evoked a ripple of laughter by asking, "Anyone wish to give me any higher bids? Are there any telephone bids?" Then the bidding was closed, the crowd applauded, and a throng of reporters and photographers crushed around the buyers.

After the sale, Kraus said, "It's the most beautiful book in the whole history of books. I hope it will go to the right place, where it belongs."

At a press conference later, Abs, speaking for the German group, hailed the sale and said, "There's no future in any civilized country unless it is based on history."

Abs said the book will now be available for study, but he added that it would not be separated into pieces. Poised and relaxed, Abs joked with reporters, many of them German, while sidestepping some specific questions about the financial arrangements for purchasing the manuscript, and about how much he ultimately had been prepared to pay.

"I only paid a little bit more than somebody else," he said. At another point, asked if the book was already paid for, he said, "I've got my checkbook in my pocket."

At the same sale, the world's oldest set of playing cards, handpainted in Flanders in 1465-80, was sold for $145,035 to the Metropolitan Museum of Art in New York.