WASHINGTON – The great koi heist began with the thieves handing out a business card.
The two neatly dressed men in khakis and white shirts showed up at a business park in the Herndon, Virginia, area in early June, saying they were with an aquatic care company and had come to remove sick fish from a pond, one person familiar with the incident said.
They spoke knowledgeably about koi carp and worked diligently, using large nets over four days to haul in the brightly colored fish, which are popular with Dell and Northrop Grumman workers who eat lunch around the pond.
The criminals’ ruse was so well-orchestrated that no one realized 400 koi had been carefully packed in large coolers and stolen until after the men were gone and security mentioned the crew to the property management company. An even greater shock: The fish might be worth tens of thousands of dollars.
Fairfax County police are still trying to solve the mystery, but the strange case has opened a window on the little-known and arcane world of koi collectors, who pay as much as $25,000 for a championship fish and passionately pit their prized specimens against each other at competitions.
“There is a whole little cult around this fish,” said Steve Maletzky, the owner of Tropical Lagoon Aquarium in Silver Spring, Maryland. “It’s almost like dog shows.”
Koi vary widely in price and are beloved for their riot of oranges, yellows and blacks and their distinctive slash and spot marks. A conservative estimate for the value of the 400 stolen fish is near $20,000, but they could have been worth far more if many of them were large. Philip Gray, president of the Mid-Atlantic Koi Club, said a koi of 18 inches (46 cm) can fetch $2,000. Young specimens retail for $8.
There have been other thefts across the nation. In May, eight koi worth about $1,600 were stolen from a pond at the University of Wisconsin campus in Madison. In January, nine koi were stolen from a Florida woman, and in 2010, 24 koi were swiped from a family’s pond in Scarsdale, New York.
But the scale of the heist in Fairfax surprised koi aficionados, who all said they had never heard of a larger one. Most of them said they did not believe that there was a black market for the fish but that a thief could easily resell them to a dealer.