"History was made today," said Katsura Yamaguchi, Christie's International Director of Japanese and Korean Art.
"We witnessed enormous interest from clients worldwide who traveled from near and far to ... participate in this landmark sale," he added.
The previous record for Asian art at auction was $12.6 million. Tuesday's price, which included Christie's commission, also established a new record for Asian art sold at auction in New York.
The seated, Cyprus wood Buddha is believed to be the work of Unkei, considered one of the great carvers of the early Kamakura period of the 1190s, Christie's said. Part of a family collection in the northern Kanto region, before which it was kept in a temple in the late 18th and early 19th centuries, its existence was unknown until it was sold to a Buddhist dealer and then bought by the consignor.
In December Sotheby's sold a tiny, ancient Mesopotamian sculpture for $57 million, setting a record for any sculpture or antiquity at auction.