Records were broken one after another for Old Master paintings, medieval manuscripts and antiques of every variety at Christie's today as more than three and a half hours of feverish bidding erupted over a trove of treasures looted by the Nazis and returned to the Rothschild family this year by the Austrian Government.
Prized Frans Hals portraits, an illuminated medieval prayer book and a Louis XVI royal commode were among the highlights that attracted record-shattering bids for the more than 200 lots, holdings from the Austrian branch of the great banking family.
The sale jammed Christie's Great Hall to overflow, with many members of other branches of the Rothschild family present and bidding, officials at the auction house said. Virtually every item sold, most for more than their estimated prices.
Expected to bring in $40 million, the sale totaled $89.9 million as it reached its exhausting ending.
A spokesman for Christie's said 10 records were set: five for Old Master paintings and one each for an illuminated manuscript sold at auction, an Italian manuscript sold at auction, a piece of furniture sold at auction, a clock sold at auction and a carpet sold at auction.
''It was one of the most successful sales in the history of auctions in Europe,'' said Lord Hindlip, chairman of Christie's. ''Never before has such a cross section of the arts fetched such extraordinary sums of money in one evening.''
Attracting the attention were the glittering contents of the family palaces originally belonging to the brothers Albert and Nathaniel von Rothschild in southwest Austria. They had acquired a staggering variety of holdings from the declining monarchs and aristocrats of 19th-century Europe.
The brothers were connoisseurs and passionate collectors who personified the opulence of fin-de-siecle Vienna. But the family's holdings were seized by the Nazis during the German Anschluss in 1938. When surviving members tried to retrieve their possessions after the war, the Austrian Government allowed them to leave the country with only a portion of what they owned, citing an export law, similar to those in other European countries, that forbade the movement of many treasured works out of the country. Many of them were hung in Vienna's great museums. The Rothschilds and other families said they agreed to leave their works only under duress.
In announcing her intention to return the possessions, the Austrian Culture Minister, Elisabeth Gehrer, said last year that she wanted to rectify what she termed immoral decisions at the end of the war.
She ran into criticism from some Austrians who viewed the postwar agreements as legitimate and also argued that the valuable art works belonged not in a private collection but in public view.
Saying their holdings had been vastly reduced, in part because of wartime destruction by the Nazis, family members decided to auction the holdings after they were removed from the museums and released to them this year.
Present today was the Baroness Bettina de Rothschild, the matriarch of the Austrian branch, who watched the sale on a closed-circuit television monitor from a private office at Christie's. The Baroness, along with her two children, a niece and a nephew were the sellers. They watched as one by one, Old Master paintings, French furniture, clocks, textiles, scientific instruments, Islamic glass and illuminated manuscripts were sold for multiples of their estimates.
It was unclear today how many of them would wind up in the hands of museums and on public view. Most of them ended up going to an international group of collectors.
One museum that did buy one of the most expensive objects was Versailles. It bought a commode made by Jean-Henri Riesener, the finest cabinetmaker to work for Louis XVI; it was delivered to him for Fontainebleau in October 1778 and in 1787 sent to Versailles. The French museum paid $10.9 million, two and a half times the estimate, $4.1 million.
Officials at Christie's said other museums had made purchases, but none were ready to announce them.
One visible bidder was Sheik Hamad bin Khalifa al-Thani, the emir of Qatar, who bought two mosque lamps and two carpets for roughly $6.6 million. Most of the bidding was done either on the telephone or through dealers.
The highest priced work in the sale was a prayer book, a medieval illuminated manuscript containing 67 full-page miniatures. Five people tried to buy the work, which was estimated to sell for $3.3 million to $4.9 million. It sold to an unidentified telephone bidder for $13.3 million.
The previous record for an illuminated manuscript was made at Sotheby's in London in 1983 when the Gospels of Henry the Lion sold for $11.7 million.
The buyer of the prayer book bidder also bought the Cornaro Missal, an illuminated manuscript, circa 1503, that was estimated at $250,000 to $330,000. It sold for $4.4 million.
Most of the Old Master paintings also fetched record prices. Among the finest was Frans Hals's portrait of the Amsterdam merchant Tieleman Roosterman. The three-quarter-length portrait shows him posed in black with a white ruffled color and cuffs. In a corner of the painting is the Roosterman coat of arms. Estimated to sell for $4.1 million to $5.7 million, it was bought by Clovis Whitfield, a London dealer, for $12.8 million, making it the second highest priced work in the sale.
The previous record for a Hals was set on July 3, 1997, at Sotheby's in London when ''St. John the Evangelist'' sold for $2.9 million.
Two other Hals paintings were sold tonight. One, a ''Portrait of a Gentleman,'' in a black coat and cape with a black hat and gloves in his left hand, carried an estimate of $2 million to $2.9 million; it was bought by an unidentified telephone bidder for $3.4 million.
Patrick Cooney, a private dealer in New York, bought ''Portrait of a Lady,'' also dressed in black, which had an estimate of $1.3 million to $2 million, for $1.4 million. Mr. Cooney also bought Tenier's portrait of the Archduke Leopold Wilhelm in his picture gallery for $4.6 million, more than three times its high estimate of $1.3 million.
An evening landscape by Wynants, estimated to sell for $330,000 to $490,000, sold to an unidentified telephone bidder for $3.6 million.
(Final prices include the auction house's commission, 15 percent of the first $50,000 and 10 percent of the rest. Estimates do not reflect commissions.)
Of the many works that sold for far more than their estimates were a Louis XVI ormolu-mounted long-case clock made for the Duc de Choiseul, expected to bring $820,000 to $1.3 million. It sold to an unidentified telephone bidder for $3 million.
Sheik al-Thani bought a 16th-century Tabriz medallion carpet for $2.4 million, far above its $410,000 high estimate. A 10 1/2-inch Louis XV microscope, estimated to sell for $130,000 to $200,000, was snapped up on the telephone for $1.5 million.
Leaving the sale, Peter Looram, the Baroness's son, said he was speechless at the results. ''I had no idea it would do this well,'' he said. ''Who wouldn't be shocked?''
Photo: The Austrian branch of the Rothschilds is auctioning a collection of art, furnishings and musical instruments in London, where a lute made by Joachim Tielke in the 17th century went for $111,600 yesterday. (Associated Press)
By CAROL VOGEL
Published: Friday, July 9, 1999