A Picasso oil painting from 1955 smashed the record for the most expensive artwork ever sold at auction on Monday (11 May) when it soared to $179.4m (£115.2m) at Christie's.

The auction house had estimated Les femmes d'Alger (Version 'O') would sell for about $140m, but several bidders competing via telephone drove the winning bid to $160m, for a final price of $179,365,000 including Christie's commission of just over 12%.

"We always knew that it was going to break the world record price, which was achieved here for a triptych by Bacon only last year, at $142m it comes as no surprise that this picture by the genius of 20th century painting, the Mozart of 20th century painting in my mind, Picasso, should sell for $180m. It's a wonderful, wonderful work," said Jussi Pylkannen, Christie's global president who also served as auctioneer.

Christie's special Looking Forward to the Past sale, which spanned collecting categories to include artists from Monet to Warhol, took in a total of $705.9m, far above the pre-sale estimate of $578m to $668m. Only one of the 35 works failed to sell.

The record-setting Picasso was last auctioned in 1997, selling for $31.9m or nearly three times its pre-sale estimate. This time bidding started at $100m, with deep-pocketed collectors driving the price upward in $1m increments.

The most expensive work of art sold at auction had been Francis Bacon's triptych Three Studies of Lucian Freud, which sold for $142.4m at Christie's in November 2013.

"It will be fascinating to see how long it holds," Pylkkanen said of the new record. The buyer of the vibrant cubist work was not identified.