Genebanks aim to optimize their storage conditions in order to postpone seed ageing as long as possible. As most genebanks have a relatively short life history, empirical data about seed longevity during ex situ storage are almost absent. Based on seed characteristics, theoretical predictions indicate that cereal seeds can be stored without substantial loss of viability for time periods exceeding 100 years, even under temperatures of a few degrees above zero. Here we present the results of a germination study in wheat and barley, comparing genebank seed samples maintained at different temperatures for 23–33 years. Wheat and barley seed samples stored at −20°C showed a mean germination of 94% and 90%, respectively, indicating no loss of the initial viability determined for the accessions prior to introduction in the collection. Seed samples maintained at 4°C showed a mean germination of 62% for wheat and 75% for barley. In addition to the observed loss of viability, the 4°C samples also showed a loss in vigour as the time period to reach their final germination was about twice as long compared to the −20°C samples. A subset of the wheat accessions tested in 2011 were retested in 2017, showing further reduction in mean germination to 35% for the 4°C samples, while the −20°C samples remained stable at 95%. Several 4°C samples were even close to a complete loss of viability. Considering that wheat and barley are generally regarded as good maintainers, the rapid loss of seed viability observed in the present study indicates that the ex situ seed storage of genetic resources at 4°C should be treated with caution by genebanks, particularly when used for long-term conservation.