Melbourne property developer Max Moar and his former wife Iris Lustig are rapidly building what one insider calls a “monumental” art collection – having outlaid $5.5 million at auctions in recent months. The two are in the headlines today after paying a record $840,000 for Albert Tucker’s 1954 painting Flirtation at Bonham and Goodman’s first sale in Melbourne last night.

Despite their separation, the pair also bought Susan Renouf’s Sidney Nolan painting of Ned Kelly for $1.475 million before it was to go up for sale at a Mossgreen auction in Melbourne on Sunday. At Mossgreen’s previous sale in Hobart last October, they created another record of $1.08 million for John Olsen’s Love in the Kitchen while in August at Sotheby’s in Sydney they set a new top price of $2.04million for a work by Brett Whitely, ‘Frangipani and Humming Bird’ – Japanese: Summer .

The rapidly growing collection of top-quality works is mostly held in Moar’s corporate offices and in the homes of the two collectors. There are suggestions they may join Eva and Marc Besen, who set up their public Tarra Warra Museum of Art in the Yarra Valley to house their collection in 2000, and David Walsh who is establishing a $50million art gallery to display his collection on his winery outside Hobart.

The series of auctions of paintings, antiques and decorative art being held this week by Bonham’s and Mossgreen have so far generated more than $6million. Mossgreen founder Paul Sumner said his sale had doubled the pre-auction estimate and that the market was strong not just for paintings but also for Indian and Chinese art works as well as the more traditional antiques. “The market is firing on all cylinders at present,” he said.

Former art director at Joel’s and Christie’s and now a private consultant, Jon Dwyer, was bidding for the Tucker on behalf of a client but was forced to pull out at $550,000. He said the final price was in the “stratosphere” and far above what he had expected the painting to fetch. “There is so much money about, and so much confidence the market will remain strong, that it’s amazing. I’d say it won’t be long before one of the top pictures hits the $5million mark.”

To put that sum in perspective, it took more than 100 years before an Australian painting hit the $1 million mark at auction and that was at the top of the last boom in 1988 when Alan Bond paid $1.25 million for a Rupert Bunny at a Leonard Joel sale. The stock market crashed soon after and the art market followed later in a slump that was to last until 1996 when auction prices started to rise again. Over the last decade, eight paintings have sold for more than $1 million, two for $2 million and one – John Brack’s The Bar – for $3.12 million which David Walsh paid at Sotheby’s a year ago. With the market awash with cash, as Bonham’s sale showed, Dwyer’s prediction will probably be proved correct.