A recently authenticated painting by Johannes Vermeer sold for almost $40 million at auction on Wednesday, a record for the 17th century Dutch painter and the fifth-highest price ever paid for an Old Master.

Young Woman Seated At The Virginals, the first work by Vermeer to appear at auction in about 80 years, sold at Sotheby's to an anonymous telephone bidder for 16.2 million pounds ($39.6 million Cdn).

Sotheby's opened the bidding at 2.4 million pounds ($5.8 million Cdn) but the price quickly rose past the painting's 3-million-pound estimate, with two anonymous telephone bidders eventually battling it out until the gavel dropped.

Canadian publisher and billionaire Kenneth Thomson paid about 49.5 million pounds ($117 million Cdn) for Rubens' Massacre of the Innocents in 2002, the auction record for for an Old Master painting.

"Both the Vermeer and the Rubens were newly discovered or newly attributed works, which added enormously to their appeal and to their eventual record price," said Alex Bell, co-chairman of Sotheby's Old Masters department.

The 25 cm-by-25 cm painting – one of only 36 Vermeers believed to exist – is the only work by the artist held in private hands. His famous Girl With A Pearl Earring is housed in the Mauritshuis museum in The Hague, while The Lacemaker, a work similar to Young Girl Seated, is at the Louvre in Paris.