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Koi Carp: The Most Expensive Koi Fish Ever Sold

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Michael is interested in life's little oddities and finds writing helps him to understand the world around him.

Koi are living art.

Koi are living art.

From humble origins, the koi has come to be the most precious of all fish, with the most beautiful specimens selling for up to $2.2 million. This ancient, beautiful and long-lived fish continues to fascinate and intrigue. Millions of dollars are spent each year on a few of the very best Koi specimens, and many more millions are spent on the more common types.

To understand why this fish is so popular, we need to understand its history and ancestry. From the humble farm laborer’s dining table, to the Emperor’s palace, koi have had a fascinating journey. The beautifully patterned, expensive specimens we see today bear little resemblance to their drab-coloured ancestors bred purely for food.

Koi are swimming jewels.

Koi are swimming jewels.

Domestication of the Carp

The origins of these superb creatures are as murky as the muddy ponds their ancestors inhabited.

Several carp species are native to Central Europe and Asia; one of them, Cyprinus carpio, originating in the area of the Black, Caspian, and Aral seas, spread west to the Danube river in Europe and east to East Asia, was domesticated in both regions, and eventually gave rise to the koi. Carp were breed in ponds for food at least 2400 years ago in China and during the Roman Empire in Europe.

From Food Fish to Ornamental Fish

Domesticated carp were long a mainstay food source for many people around the world, including in Europe. The popularity of carp as a table dish in Europe declined around the 1830s, as new networks of railways transformed the fishing industry. Ocean fish, which could now be delivered quickly, became popular in big cities. Changing tastes may also have played a part in carp’s decline as a food fish.

Koi Feeding

Theories on the Origin of Koi

Though it was once thought that Cyprinus Carpio or common carp was a Chinese fish that had been brought to Europe, in 1995 E. K. Balon showed that the Danube has had an indigenous wild carp population since the retreat of the last glaciation in 12,000 BC.

Balon cites an ancient Roman source, Ovid (43 BC to AD 17 or 18), regarding the domestication of carp. Cassiodorus (AD 490-585) confirmed that carp graced King Theodorus's court in Italy:

“From the Danube come Carp and from the Rhine Herring. To provide a variety of flavours, it is necessary to have many fish from many countries. A king's reign should be such as to indicate that he possesses everything."

(Source: The Early History of the Carp and its Economic Significance in England, by carp fisherman Christopher Currie.)

In the Far East, also, carp attracted royal patrons. The Japanese historical record Nihon-Shoki states the emperor Keikou kept ornamental carp in his palace pond as of AD 94, as did the emperor Suiko in AD 620, though these may have been another carp species, such as the one that became the goldfish.

The decorative carp called koi (in Japanese, nishikogoi) were first bred for their color in the Niigata prefecture of Japan in the 1820s. They contain DNA from the East Asian subspecies of Cyprinus Carpio, and in at least some cases from the western subspecies as well; much hybridization has gone on. When they were exhibited at a fair in Tokyo in 1914, they created a sensation that spread worldwide.

The highly coloured ornamental specimens are really nothing like the wild varieties. These are not your average pet, like a dog, but the source of great wealth, prestige, and pride.

Why Are Koi So Expensive?

According to Richard Tan, president of the Singapore Koi Club and chairman of the organising committee for the First Asia Cup Koi Show in May 2008, the most expensive koi ever sold went to Japanese companies in the booming 1980s for about 50 million to 100 million yen apiece, or $500,000 to $1,000,000.

If adjusted for inflation, 25+ years later, this is equivalent to paying in excess of $2.2 million in today's dollars for one exceptional fish.

The Rarity of Competition-Quality Fish

Only a few koi enter the bidding at this level. Tan says that out of 500,000 koi bred annually, just 50 are selected for competition when they reach two years of age. The remaining koi go to hobbyists at more ordinary prices.

Owning the most expensive koi is of course a major status symbol, like owning a garage full of Ferraris or Rolls Royce. And yet this is a living creature, it is alive and exquisite to look upon. Tan calls it "living art."

Fish Bowl (AD 379)

Fish Bowl (AD 379)

Displaying the "Living Art" of Koi

The brightly coloured specimens we see today were created by selective breeding. The patterns were partly determined by the way the fish were displayed; they were designed to be seen from above.

In both China and Japan, large earthenware jars were made to show off the fish (there was no technology then for manufacturing large glass bowls). So the fish that looked most pleasing from above were used for breeding. I suppose those that were not so attractive, ended their days on another piece of china. Namely a dinner plate.

Beautiful, tranquil swimming koi.

Beautiful, tranquil swimming koi.

How Long Do Koi Live?

Koi can live for many years. Though the average specimen in captivity might live 25 or 35 years, an old koi named Hanako, from Mino province in Japan, has been shown to be over 215 years old based on analysis of her scales, and other 100+ year old fish are known from the same pond. Koi, like wild carp, can grow to 36" or more under perfect conditions.

Koi in Japanese and World Culture

The imagery of the koi carp permeates Japanese culture. Their symbolism of long life and prosperity is very appealing, and their slow, peaceful movement inspires tranquility.

With the opening up of Japan to the world in the mid-1850s, their cultural influence has been exported, along with their cars and electronics.

Now we can see images of koi carp just about everywhere, from decorative design for homes to body adornment. In fact Europe is now a significant importer of koi.

You can find places where you can eat koi carp. These will be fish that have been rejected for breeding purposes. If you want to taste regular old-style carp, you will probably find their brownish golden cousins swimming in a lake near you.

But this ancient, long-lived, ornamental fish is much more valuable as living art.

Questions & Answers

Question: How do I know if I have expensive Koi?

Answer: Check the color pattern against the most expensive varieties and find a local aquatic shop that can give you some idea of local prices.

Question: Do you recommend buying Koi online and how are they shipped?

Answer: I'm inclined to suggest that you should buy in person from a reputable source.

Question: What kind of pond is best for long living Koi?

Answer: Although Koi can live in muddy ponds for best results keep the pond well aerated and free from contaminants.


Richard horne on October 19, 2018:

They our beautiful the only part i dont like which alot of people wouldnt know is that when it comes to the big business of them the side when breeders our trying to create the most prettiest specimen the ones that sell for huge sums by ex the white ones with the red spot on the head so it looks like the japanese flag to get one like that is a one in a million chance the other 999 999 thousand have to be killed because its economically not worth producing average koi this only represents the big business carp breeders that produce a handful of these fish in a lifetime the rest our chucked away these fish that make big money alot of fish were produced to get that special one

billy on March 21, 2017:

Such a beautiful speciman!

meg in sechelt. bc on August 15, 2016:

i have 3 koi in excess of 25 years old each and feel they would thrive in a larger more aerated pond - is craigslist the best avenue to find a buyer?

Micheal (author) from United Kingdom on April 05, 2016:

Hi Deborah, thank you for your inquiry about the Jardiniere. It is a Carp Fish bowl. Carp are best viewed from above. I have added a link to the photo above.

Deborah on March 31, 2016:

Can you tell me anything about the Asian fish bowl in the illustration? I have one with a very similar design, the red design under the rim is the exactly the same. I am trying to find out more information about the one I have. Thank you.

Micheal (author) from United Kingdom on July 06, 2015:

Thank you Justina Tong for your interesting but ill informed comments. You really must check your facts before making assertions about the origins of species. Where is your evidence?

Koi certainly do raise the passion in people. The facts are clearly explained in the article above and I quote:

"Though it was once thought that Cyprinus carpio or common carp was a Chinese fish that had been brought to Europe, in 1995 E. K. Balon showed that the Danube has had an indigenous wild carp population since the retreat of the last glaciation in 12,000 BC."

E.K.Balon is a recognized and respected ichthyology source. Maybe you misread or misinterpreted the data in the above article.

As this states that Koi were in Europe 12,000 years ago.

Micheal (author) from United Kingdom on July 06, 2015:

Hi Terry, sorry for the delay in replying to your warm and interesting comments. I am glad that you found this article helpful and inspired you to share your ideas. I have looked at your paintings and they are truly beautiful. 'As good as gold' is stunning, as are the many other artworks you have created. Thank you for popping in.

lwest on July 03, 2015:

How do you find a collector?

Justina Tong on June 11, 2015:

Koi carp fish were originally raised in beautiful and lovely Chinese ponds and rice patties. The Chinese were more than generous by donating and sharing the Koi fish according to history with Japan, Canada and the United States and Europe. Koi fish have many different uses and are a symbol of ambition and prosperity in Chinese culture. As a young person, I Justina Tong am smart enough to know that China has evidence to support that the common carp was a Chinese fish that was indeed brought to Europe. Please correct your article with states that “carp simply came from the Danube“ which is a material deficiency and is not correct whether or not it was a theory

That is a fact that the origin of Koi comes from China thousands of years ago according to history BEFORE the Danube. That is not true that “from the Danube came Carp”. Chinese people were raising and domesticating Koi in ponds at least 1000 years before the Roman empire. Obviously, Chinese royalty knew about Koi fish 1000 years before the Romans. Why else do people see these numerous beautiful Asian ponds with Koi fish that were invented and created in China. Koi fish stand for fortune, longevity, prosperity and courage and it was the Chinese that thought of that over 4000 years ago. Koi fish were raised in China as food in ponds and in rice patty fields. The Chinese people did most of the work in terms of breeding Koi fish into many different colours. In fact, China has made a much bigger contribution to the breeding of Koi fish into many different colours than any other country in the worldKoi fish were much more popular in China during that time. There is solid evidence to support that Koi fish were appreciated by the emperor and empresses in China BEFORE Koi fish ever “graced any European court”.

Koi fish are native to China at least 500 years BEFORE Cassiodorus (AD 490-585) in Rome and/or Ovid (43 BC to AD 17 or 18) made any comments that carp graced King Theodorus's court in Italy

Terry Gilecki on June 09, 2015:

Hi Micheal,

I got lucky and came across your very informative koi site. I am a professional artist and I did my first Koi pond painting about 15 years ago. I was hooked and have dedicated myself to trying to paint these wonderful creatures in ways that resonate with everyone, whether they are koi enthusiasts or not. As I continue this journey I am learning more about this fascinating creature which only draws me in more.

If you are interested in seeing my original creations or my limited editions, you can simply google my name "Terry Gilecki".

Since I primarily paint from imagination I am not always concerned with portraiture accuracy but more with conveying the wonderful sense of peace and serenity of the koi pond onto my canvas.

Hope you enjoy my perspective.

Terry Gilecki

Micheal (author) from United Kingdom on February 22, 2014:

Hi Mart, there are many ways to sell Koi. The easiest way is of course online via eBay or a similar type of sales website. Good luck.

Mart on February 07, 2014:

How would I go about selling my koi?

Micheal (author) from United Kingdom on November 21, 2013:

Thanks JPSO138, glad you enjoyed this hub on the the most expensive koi even sold.

It was fascinating researching the facts, and tracking down the source of these amazing creatures.

JPSO138 from Cebu, Philippines, International on November 17, 2013:

I have seen some kois and know that some are expensive. but I never thought that they are that expensive. Really an interesting and informative hub. You surely made this read worth reding.

Micheal (author) from United Kingdom on November 15, 2013:

Hello Nell Rose,

They are amazingly long lived fish and the prices are eye watering for sure.

But the top collectors [rich] will pay just about anything to get their hands on the finest specimens.

They are the Rolls Royce of Fish!

Nell Rose from England on November 13, 2013:

How much? Jeez! I wish I could wake up in the morning and find my two goldfish had turned into them! its just silly money isn't it as you said, played by rich people, but saying that they do live a long time, is it worth the money? as they say, its relative to the market!

Micheal (author) from United Kingdom on February 05, 2013:

Hello rumintasari,

They are stunning creatures and hope that you manage to get some for yourself.

Have you considered breeding some for yourself? They are pretty easy to look after. Good luck with your pond.

Ruminta Sari from Sleman on February 03, 2013:

really interesting hub, voted. I have an outdoor pond planned for koi but not really have the time for it now, so I fill it with other type of carps that are more cheaper and don't need lots of attention. the beautiful koi will be there, sometimes...

Micheal (author) from United Kingdom on November 29, 2012:

Hello jonno96,

They are amazingly beautiful fish and seem quite intelligent.

They always know when it is feeding time. :)

jonno96 from Australia on November 28, 2012:

voted this up, quite interesting, i always go to see the koi fish in Singapore airport when in transit, they are so amazing, i wish i had some!

Micheal (author) from United Kingdom on October 29, 2012:

Hello grand old lady,

The modern Koi carp are the more decorative varieties that are more familiar these days.

The carp that were eaten in the past were a dull brown colour and kept in rice growing fields, as a supplemental protein source.

I would imagine that they would taste quite earthy similar to farmed trout.

Thanks for dropping in and leaving a comment.

Mona Sabalones Gonzalez from Philippines on October 26, 2012:

I have always been fascinated with koi carp. They are so beautiful and they are plentiful in the Philippines. I never knew that they were eaten, I thought they were mainly decorative. Would you know how they taste? A part of me doesn't respond well to the thought of eating these large and beautiful fish, but we must live dangerously, even Grand Old Ladies.

Micheal (author) from United Kingdom on October 01, 2012:

Hi John,

I agree. Tattooing fish is wrong, not to mention very difficult.

Slippery little suckers. :)

John on September 30, 2012:

Tattoing fish is wrong.

Micheal (author) from United Kingdom on June 20, 2012:

Thank you anusujith,

So glad you liked reading about koi carp. They are amazing fish.

Micheal (author) from United Kingdom on June 19, 2012:

Thanks sgbrown,

Sorry about the delay in posting a reply but things are a little hectic at the moment. Koi carp are amazing creatures and the colours are spectacular, not to mention the prices. :)

Anoop Aravind A from Nilambur, Kerala, India on June 15, 2012:

Nice hub... You prepared it well...

Sheila Brown from Southern Oklahoma on June 15, 2012:

Koi are beautiful fish! I see them in ornamental ponds in different places and always enjoy looking at them. I have always enjoyed koi art work as well, it is always so graceful and colorful. This is a great hub with such good information. Many votes and sharing! Have a beautiful day!

Aurelio Locsin from Orange County, CA on February 11, 2012:

Seeing as how they can cost the same, a tattoo is easier to take care of but the live version is more fun to watch. Voting this Up and Interesting. Thanks for SHARING.

Micheal (author) from United Kingdom on January 30, 2012:

Hello John Sarkis,

Ha ha the poor halibut. Have you even seen a monk-fish. Now that has a face only a mother could love but again delicious. Sold as scampi in Britain at a premium price too.

John Sarkis from Winter Haven, FL on January 30, 2012:

Great hub. These fish are beautiful to look at, luckily for them they don't taste very good. That said, halibuts are very ugly and taste delicious. My point, philosophy exists even in fish...LOL

Great hub


Micheal (author) from United Kingdom on January 28, 2012:

Hi there vasantha T k,

Thank you for coming over too.

Micheal (author) from United Kingdom on January 28, 2012:

Hello Tammy,

lol your great,great,great grand-kids will still be feeding them lol

I didn't think of that? how weird is that?

vasantha T k on January 28, 2012:

Thanks for sharing. Interesting and informative. Voted up.

Micheal (author) from United Kingdom on January 28, 2012:

Hi Kris,

I agree they do look to good to eat. Not to mention the costs lol

The 300 dollar tattoo is actually cheap compared to the fish?

Micheal (author) from United Kingdom on January 28, 2012:

Hello JS,

Glad you had a chance to study up on these amazing fish. Koi Carp are way too expensive to eat but you can get their cousins the Common Carp at reasonable

I'm not sure how they compare on taste, but like you I will stick to more mundane fish and chips lol

Thanks for SHARING too much appreciated.

Tammy from North Carolina on January 27, 2012:

Fantasic hub. I love looking at these fish and would love to have a pond full of them. Now I am not sure my great, great, great Grandkids would appreciate that. Beautiful creatures. Thanks for sharing these!

Kris Heeter from Indiana on January 27, 2012:

Wow, I knew they had long lives but would never had guessed up to 230 years. That's amazing.

I know conceptually they can't be much different than eating other fish but I think I'd have a hard time feasting on the beauties!

Neat hub!

JS Matthew from Massachusetts, USA on January 27, 2012:

OK, ok. I came back and read the article lol! Wow, I had no idea about these fish species although I have seen pictures online. These fish have quite a history. They've certainly been around for a long time! I can't believe that they can live a few hundred years! That's amazing! I don't think I could afford one at this time, so I'll stick to the local cod species! Very well researched and executed. Voted up and stuff!

Thanks for SHARING!


Micheal (author) from United Kingdom on January 26, 2012:

Thanks for sharing that with us JS lol

JS Matthew from Massachusetts, USA on January 26, 2012:

I had that for dinner tonight! Not the carp, but fish and chips! lol I think it was cod. Just sayin'...


Micheal (author) from United Kingdom on January 26, 2012:

Anyone for fish and chips? lol

Micheal (author) from United Kingdom on December 08, 2011:

Hi Debbie,

lol the big one would have been released back into the lake.

The origins are indeed submerged in the mists of time:)

There is a whole industry devoted to catering to people who want to fish for Carp.