LONDON (AP) _ Spectators gasped and applauded as Vincent van Gogh's ''Sunflowers,'' which the impoverished Dutch artist failed to sell for $125 before his suicide in 1890, was auctioned for $39.85 million.

An anonymous buyer bidding by telephone Monday paid 24.75 million pounds for the famous painting at Christie's auction house, more than tripling the record for a painting sold at auction.

The price stunned the 1,300 art buyers and enthusiasts from around the world who had crowded into the auction room.

Millionaires jumped to their feet and craned their necks for a better view as the bidding started, while a Japanese collector rushed to the middle of the room with his camera.

Gasps of astonishment were heard as the price surged beyond $32.2 million and spontaneous applause broke out as the auctioneer brought his hammer down to conclude the sale. It all took no more than five minutes.

Before the sale, Christie's had said it expected about $16.1 million would be bid for the painting - a burst of gold and ocher measuring 39 inches by 30 inches and showing 15 sunflowers.

On an April 18, 1985 auction, the J. Paul Getty art museum at Malibu, Calif. paid a record 8.1 million pounds, then $10.5 million, for Andrea Mantegna's ''Adoration of the Magi.''

That price was exceeded in dollars last December in London when an anonymous European collector bought a Paris street scene by Edouard Manet for 7.7 million pounds, then worth $11.1 million because the pound had risen in value.

Lori Starr of the wealthy Getty Museum said after Monday's sale, ''We are not the buyers of 'Sunflowers'.''

Christie's refused to name the buyer or even reveal which country the successful bidder was speaking from.

But rumors circulated that the buyer was in Japan. Christie's had sent the picture on a tour of Tokyo, New York and Zurich.

''I am 99.9 percent certain it was from Japan,'' said New York dealer Jacob Baal-Teshuva.

''There are only 10 to 15 people in the world, and the Getty Museum, who can afford that kind of money. It was a fantastic price, mind-boggling. Nobody expected it. We thought the top might be 18 million pounds ($30 million),'' he said.

Van Gogh, who reportedly managed to sell only one painting in his lifetime, painted ''Sunflowers'' in January 1889 and wrote in a letter that year that he expected ''one of these Scots or Americans'' might buy it for 500 French francs - then worth about $125.

The picture was the last and biggest of seven similar paintings and was painted from memory.

Van Gogh, who had a history of mental illness, lived on handouts from his brother, Theo, an art dealer who told him the money was coming from sales of the artist's work.

Eighteen months after writing the letter, Van Gogh killed himself at the age of 37 when he found his brother's home stacked with his unsold works.

''Sunflowers'' was bought in Paris in 1934 for an undisclosed sum by the family of Sir Alfred Chester Beatty, a U.S.-born Briton who made a fortune in American mines.

It was sold by executors of his daughter-in-law, Helen Chester Beatty, who died last year. The proceeds will go to Mrs. Beatty's daughter, Sarah Thompson Jones, and Mrs. Jones' two children by the Earl of Warwick.

Monday's sale took place on the anniversary of Van Gogh's birth on March 30, 1853, and Christie's threw a party afterwards with a cake decorated with a replica of the painting.