IT is hard to put a monetary value on the gift the sculptor Sir Anthony Caro gave to Poole 22 years ago.

The 35ft abstract sculpture Sea Music was already estimated as being worth £1.2million more than a decade ago.

And the death last week of its distinguished creator, at the age of 89, will only serve to pique interest in his work.

But Sea Music attracted provoked passionate debate when it arrived in on the Quay in 1991, with supporters and critics equally vociferous The sculpture was intended to evoke the sound and appearance of the cascading sea through interlocking rings and curves, the sculptor said, “while the central vertical plate recalls the masts and sails of the ships.”

The town’s first glimpse of a potential Caro sculpture for the Quay came in September 1989, when Sir Anthony launched Poole Arts Festival ’89 at the Civic Centre and unveiled his plan. It was, he said, a piece of “sculpitecture” – “a piece of sculpture large enough for people to climb onto and walk through”.

Poole Arts Council had approached Sir Anthony to create a work for the town and by August 1990 he had submitted an idea for a 20ft sculpture depicting the bridge of a ship, with a viewing gallery. It would be placed at a pumping station on the Quay.

But Poole Harbour Commissioners lodged a protest, saying it would cause problems on a working quay, attract vandals and not blend in.

The borough’s planning committee held off from backing the plan, with some members saying they had never heard of the sculptor. Assistant borough architect Tom Roberts told them: “If you wanted to list half a dozen of the greatest sculptors in the world, he would be among them.”

Sir Anthony offered to make a half-size model of his sculpture, which would itself worth thousands of pounds, before work started.

In due course, the sculpture that became Sea Music did receive planning permission. Construction firms donated £120,000 in time and materials, with Bourne Steel providing fastenings and spending four months constructing the work. Burt and Vick contributed financially and Southern Fabrication helped with the walkways that would form part of the piece. British Steel was providing the material.

Sir Anthony, who had a home in Worth Matravers, was not taking a fee.

“I’m flabbergasted by the wonderful support,” the sculptor said.

“I don’t think it’s just to stand there as a great big lump of metal. People can walk up to different heights and see better the view from there.

“That view looking out from the Quay always makes me feel so much better.”

Poole mayor Cllr Ted Hogg predicted: “It will be of great significance as we go into Europe.”

But there was discontent among some councillors that the borough would be liable for upkeep once the sculpture was in place. And it emerged that the council had spent more than £6,000 on preparatory work, plus an £8,500 grant for setting up the sculpture.

On October 30 1991, the Echo reported on the piece being winched into position.

Even Sir Anthony admitted he did not know exactly how it would look.

“I have never done anything on such a big scale before and it has been very much working at arms’ length,” he said.

There were some barbed comments from onlookers, including “Oh look, it’s a rotary can opener.”

“I do not expect people to love it the first time they see it,” the sculptor said.

A vox pop on the quayside the following day showed there were plenty of critics.

Bernard Washer, 80, of Poole, said: “Probably if there’s another war they’ll take it away for scrap.”

Purbeck Pottery manager Varden Ede added: “The pottery’s definitely been hit by closing the road just to put up a piece of garbage like that.”

But the official unveiling the next month saw Arts Council chairman Lord Alumbo describing Sea Music as a “masterwork” and Caro as our “greatest living sculptor”.

“It is an extraordinary feat to have realised a project of this magnitude in these particular times,” Lord Alumbo said.

“It is of national and international significance. It will bring tourists from all over the world.”

Bourne Steel’s David Sands was keen to defend the sculpture in January 1992. “I admire it and I’m fiercely proud of it,” he said. “I think Sir Anthony was extremely courageous. I look at it and see the workmanship which has gone into it.”

The controversy would occasionally flare up again, and in 1999 Cllr Jeff Allen was calling for the sculpture to be re-sited to avoid the council incurring more costs.

It had been dismantled 18 months previously for work to be carried out and was now under scaffolding for three weeks to be treated for the effects of salt water.

Cllr Allen said the work was “seen by many as a burden on the ratepayers of Poole”.

He said: “The costs incurred by the council for the dismantling, re-erection and repair of a gift, which was imposed on the town without any public consultation, are unacceptable and could be better spent on providing services to the people of Poole.”

But the mayor, Cllr Ann Stribley, said Sea Music could be worth £1.2m and that under the Percentage for Art scheme “it’s this council’s policy to put in works of art whether you like it or not”.

Sir Anthony was aware the work had its critics.

On a return to the town to open an exhibition about Sea Music at Scaplen’s Court Museum in 1994, he said: “I was quite surprised when there were a lot of people who didn’t like it, but I don’t think these people would like anything.

“On the whole, I think people have come to see it as part of their place.”

He added: “People initially objected to the Eiffel Tower and I think the same happens to any sculpture in a public place.”