Koi Carp: The Most Expensive Koi Fish Ever Sold
Koi are living art
From humble origins, the koi has come to be the most precious of all fish, 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
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.
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 Carp 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.
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."
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.
Koi VarietiesClick thumbnail to view full-size
White Koi, Sometimes Called Ghost Koi
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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.