Royal key's journey from Barrow to gun show

Alvis Karlonas holds the Princess Louise key
Alvis Karlonas' passion for antiques and "nice things" began in childhood

Golden keys that once belonged to Queen Victoria's daughter have been listed for sale after a journey from Cumbria to a Canadian gun show.

Princess Louise was presented with ornate keys as she carried out royal duties in the early 1900s, including the opening of a school in Barrow.

Her collection caught the eye of antiques dealer Alvis Karlonas when it appeared at a gun show across the Atlantic in 2007.

Attempts to sell the artefacts online have proved fruitless, but interest in the story remains.

Mr Karlonas arrived in Canada in 1990 from his native Lithuania, building a business largely driven by his love of scouring antique fairs and gun shows.

"I saw these keys at a gun show. This old fella had nik-naks and the keys in a showcase," Mr Karlonas said.

"He told me they are royal keys and I said 'come on'."

The find's importance became more clear to the dealer when he read an accompanying solicitors' letter reflecting the handing over of the Argyll Keys to a Mr Barr.

He didn't buy the collection that day, but snapped it up for 12,000 Canadian dollars when he spotted it a year later in another antiques shop.

"I liked the quality and the design," he said.

"I couldn't believe that these items were floating around in this province."

According to Cumbria Archives researcher Susan Benson, the Barrow Key - made of 18 karat gold and weighing more than 100g - was presented to Princess Louise when she opened the Barrow Technical College (now the Nan Tait) in 1903.

Builder William Gladwell handed over the ceremonial item, which was made by Cumbrian jewellers Storeys and features the Barrow coat of arms on one side and a picture of the school on the other.

How the keys came to be in the possession of the Barr family and from there, into the hands of a gun show antiques dealer in Canada remains a mystery.

However, Princess Louise and her husband, the Duke of Argyll John Campbell, did have connections to the country.

The duke was appointed Governor General of Canada in 1878 and Lake Louise, in the Rockies, was named after the princess.

Princess Louise
Princess Louise was the sixth child of Victoria and Albert and known for her unconventional lifestyle

Ms Benson said she "cannot imagine" many people would be interested in the unusual auction lot - and Mr Karlonas says "not a single bidder" has approached him.

"But money is paper and history is history," he said.

"I'm enjoying them myself, it is a conversation piece between me and my friends."

The archivist said the Barrow Key would possibly be of interest to Barrow's Dock Museum.

When asked if he would consider donating the key back to its original home, the antiques dealer said: "Maybe one day.

"Nobody gave me these keys for free, but who knows, maybe something will happen."

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