David Hockney’s 1972 work, from his California period, Portrait of an Artist (Pool with Two Figures), was the Holy Grail of the Bradford artist’s body of work, Alex Rotter, at Christie’s, had said.
Expectations were high that it would do well, but few had foreseen the scale of its value.
When the hammer went down at $90m – around £70m – it had emphatically surpassed the highest amount previously paid for a work by a living artist.
That record had been held by the American Jeff Koons, one of whose Balloon Dog sculptures sold for $58.4m (£45.6m) in 2013.
The winning bidder this time wanted to remain anonymous, as did the seller, although Hockney’s painting had been owned previously by the record producer and philanthropist David Geffen, who sold it to the British billionaire Joe Lewis in 1995 for an undisclosed sum.
The $90m price is more than three times the previous record for a work by Hockney, which was set earlier this year, when his 1990 piece, Pacific Coast Highway, went for $28.5m (£21m), also in New York.
Two years ago, Woldgate Woods, his landscape of trees near Bridlington, where he lived in his 70s, fetched $11.7m (£9.4m).
Mr Rotter, whose firm orchestrated the latest sale, said Pool with Two Figures had “all the elements that you would want in a Hockney painting”.
“The California landscape, the beautiful trees and flowers and the sky, and then what we know him most for, which is the pool,” he said.
Hockney, who turned 81 this year, had been inspired to paint it by two photographs he found on his studio floor, one of a swimmer in Hollywood in 1966, the other of a boy staring at an item on the ground.
The painting shows two men, one doing the breaststroke under water while the other watches from the side of the pool.
The standing figure is said to be based on Hockney’s former partner, Peter Schlesinger, whom he met in 1966 while teaching art classes in California.
Hockney had already begun the painting when they split up in 1971. After a break, he resumed the piece the following year.
It was with such slices of west coast American life that he made his name, having outgrown the British pop art scene at the end of the 1960s. He has painted houses in Los Angeles, their swimming pools and semi-naked men in the water, in a distinctive palette forever associated with him.
But the California paintings are a long way from his working-class roots in Bradford.
Hockney studied at the city’s College of Art and the Royal College of Art in London in the 1950s and early 1960s and had a sell-out solo show after leaving.
But he was almost denied his diploma because he did not complete an essay – an act of rebellion as he felt he should be judged solely on his art. He drew a sketch of a diploma in protest. When eventually awarded a gold medal which he is said to have accepted while wearing a gold lame jacket.