IN A DESPERATE RACE to save a controversial piece of public sculpture from the wrecker's ball, Washington Project for the Arts director Al Nodal rushed his red pickup truck through massive traffic snarls caused by the siege of the Washington Monument last week.

It took him an hour to drive 20 blocks. When he got there, the sculpture was lying on its side, but the wreckers hadn't yet destroyed it. And instead of being smashed to bits, it was tentatively sold to an arts patron for an estimated $25,000.

The work of art is "World's Apart," a 40-foot-high collection of hundreds of discarded household appliances -- toasters, vacuum cleaners, record players -- cemented into a cyclone-shaped whirl of steel construction bars between the Whitehurst Freeway and the Watergate.

"World's Apart" had surprised, delighted and outraged thousands of Washington residents and commuters since Nodal's WPA, a private arts center funded by grants from the National Endowment for the Arts and by private contributions, commissioned it six months ago. But the permit allowing it to occupy city land ran out Dec. 1, and city officials told Nodal it had to go.

At the last minute an appliance company president, Raymond Zimmerman, hearing that the sculpture was about to be torn down, offered to buy it at a tentative price of $25,000. Zimmerman wants to place it outside the new headquarters of his firm, Service Merchandise Co. Inc., in a Nashville suburb.

Nodal learned of the offer in a telephone call from the sculptor, Nancy Rubins, at 10:45 a.m. Dec. 8. Forty-five minutes earlier, Nodal, under pressure from city officials and police to get rid of the sculpture, had reluctantly given the go-ahead to a wrecking crew.

It is not unusual to demolish a piece of this size if it cannot be sold or permanently placed, Rubins said in a telephone interview. She said she regularly creates and then destroys works of art.

"But I have control over it," she said. "When somebody else wants to knock it down for stinking reasons, for negative reasons, it's bad. It made my drive to persevere" and sell the work stronger.

This time there was a reprieve.

"The piece is sold!" Nodal recalls the artist saying excitedly over the phone.

"It's too late," he told her. "They're taking it down."

She then expressed strong dismay in one word.

There was no telephone at the sculpture site, but Nodal told her he would try to stop the wreckers. He ran to his pickup parked near WPA headquarters at 400 Seventh St. NW and began driving--only to be trapped for an hour in an enormous traffic jam as police cleared streets near the Washington Monument, which anti-nuclear activist Norman Mayer was threatening to blow up with dynamite.

When Nodal finally arrived at the sculpture site, he found there was little damage to the artwork even though the wreckers had laid it on its side and were taking it apart. He directed them to continue to dismantle it carefully and systematically so it could be shipped and reassembled.

"It looked like a dying elephant. It's really weird. It will be shipped [to Nashville] next week," Nodal said.

"We were really under pressure. It's a piece of art. We shouldn't have been pressured. It put me in a really bad position . . . It's funny now, but it almost killed me. I've never lost a piece of art . I thought I was going to lose it."

Bernard O'Donnell, who acts as chairman of the D.C. Public Space Committee, the city agency that issued the temporary permit for the sculpture's placement on public land, said he did not know of any pressure on Nodal.

"When it came to the end, they were trying to negotiate the sale of the sculpture and they couldn't get it down by Dec. 1 ," O'Donnell said. "They asked for a grace period of a week to take it down. We gave them a grace period. Next thing we saw it on the ground."

Nodal said that under his agreement with the artist, Rubins will receive the proceeds from the sale.

Zimmerman, reached by telephone at the headquarters of his company -- a firm with 140 mail-order showrooms nationwide, 6,500 employes and gross sales last year of $865 million -- said he is an art collector and first saw and liked Rubins' work at the O.K. Harris art gallery in the SoHo district of Manhattan.

"We Service Merchandise Co. sell all those items . . . vacuum cleaners, all the electric appliances," Zimmerman said. "I just thought that would be a piece of sculpture to put in front of our office building. I had seen the piece in Washington a few times."

The sale is contingent on Zimmerman's receiving permission from the relevant local boards and commissions to install the sculpture, said Ivan Karp, director of the O.K. Harris gallery and Rubins' dealer. He said Zimmerman "anticipates they will erect various barriers to his installing this work . . . Part of his personality is to provoke reaction from people, to do things that are adventurous."

The sculpture stirred controversy in Washington, although Neighborhood Advisory Commission 2A in Foggy Bottom voted to support it. Chairman Steve Levy said the work was "polarizing that part of the neighborhood. Some people had extremely negative feelings toward it. They expressed themselves in very strong terms. Others said, what the heck, it's only six months."

David Huddle, president of the board of directors of the nearby Potomac Overlook Condominium, at 1001 26th St. NW, and one of the sculpture's detractors, said he found it "fascinating" that it has tentatively sold at a high price, but added, "I'll be delighted when it's gone."

Said Kenneth Rubin, another Potomac Overlook resident: "I'm delighted to hear that someone else likes it so much that they're going to take it elsewhere . . . That's really a nice Christmas present." CAPTION: Picture, "World's Apart," artist Nancy Rubins' controversial sculpture, on the day it was saved from a wrecking crew by an art patron's bid, By John McDonnell -- The Washington Post; Picture 2, The sculpture "World's Apart" was saved by a $25,000 bid from a Tennessee business executive; by Lucian Perkins -- The Washington Post